After building up an estimated 50 million users and receiving (and turning down) billion dollar offers from Facebook and Google, Snapchat is the thriving app everyone is talking about. It's the app that everyone wants to emulate.
The problem is, they're doing it all wrong.
Founded in 2011, the ephemeral photo-sharing app is already drawing attention away from Facebook as the new "cool" app among younger generations. With a median age of 18 (compared to Facebook's 40), Snapchat's success stems largely from its widespread popularity with millennials. This realization has spawned spin-offs of Snapchat, all hoping to cash in on some of the attention of ephemeral apps.
Probably the best known imitation, Facebook Poke, was a huge flop. But there are other companies that were founded on the basis of privacy and ephemerality. Confide, which brands itself as a "Snapchat for the Professional World," is a way of messaging without leaving records or a paper trail. Former business CTO Pax Dickinson announced he was working on an encryption-based ephemeral picture messaging app called Glimpse, after he was fired for his inappropriate tweets. The tagline: Because Sometimes You Wish You Hadn't Said That Online. (The server for Glimpse's website is no longer up).
There are a slew of others I could mention -- Frankly, Ansa, Blink, Efemr -- that are all trying to build an appeal off the same concept: the idea that users want their privacy and a way of communicating off the record.
However, there's a huge flaw in this approach: Millennials do not care about privacy. Out of all target demographics, millennials are probably the least likely to care about their privacy. As a college student, I've walked freely through unlocked houses and unlocked rooms, with and without swarms of people. Millennials have little use for encryptions, safes, locks or even semi-strong passwords. And despite the growing need to look professional online, my peers are still posting questionable pictures and tweeting inappropriate tweets, all in the name of #yolo.
Another misconception is that Snapchat is used mainly for sexting among millennials. Aside the fact that I only know of one person who actually uses Snapchat for sexting, when I expressed my horror to her at the privacy risk involved, her only reaction was a shrug.
I told her about the multiple ways to screenshot a Snapchat without the sender knowing. I explained how technically someone could still retrieve the "deleted" snap from her phone. She remained as apathetic as before -- to her, it didn't matter how secure Snapchat was.
On the TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco stage last summer, Evan Spiegel actively discouraged users from using Snapchat to sext. In complete contrast, a presenter for the conference's competition Startup Battlefield, Ansa, specifically pitched its product as a way to safely send regrettable or suspect texts and pictures.
Even the Snapchat hack in December that released 4.6 million usernames and numbers didn't spur much of a reaction from my peers (although a few did delete their accounts afterwards). In fact, Snapchat shouldn't really be considered "ephemeral." The disappearance is a key part of Snapchat, but it's also an optional part. I have a fair amount of snapchats on my phone and computer, and one friend has an entire Facebook album dedicated to saved and screenshotted snaps.
We are a generation obsessed with documenting life as it happens. We don't like to lose, we don't like to forget. Disappearing messages are only a small part of Snapchat's popularity. Much more relevant is its novel method of communication, its constant flow of media attention and its dirt cheap business model. In addition, startup success is frequently based largely on luck and timing. Maybe Snapchat was just what millennials needed at the time. And it's still widely debated on if it will still be needed in the future.
So why do people like Snapchat? It's because it's the app equivalent of a wave on the street, rather than stopping for a full conversation. It's a footnote for those who might like this picture, but it doesn't require a response. It lets you narrow down who sees your post, but broadens your reach to those you don't see or talk to regularly. Somehow, Snapchat (likely by complete accident) has achieved this.
The startups jumping on the Snapchat bandwagon aren't going to get anywhere by selling ephemerality. Millennials will still use texts to trash their friends, bosses and colleagues. They'll still use IMs to plan questionable activities and they'll still use Snapchat to sext if they want to. The privacy factor isn't what is selling Snapchat.
In fact, no company has successfully overtaken an established social app without staking out another niche. The most popular apps, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, all cover different methods of communication. Trying to be the new Facebook or Twitter has never worked. Trying to be the new Snapchat is not going to work.
So for all the Snapchat imitators and copycats out there: Stop trying to make ephemeral happen. It's not going to happen.