Commentary

It's Not 'Social'- It's 'Personal'

It has been a while since my daughter schooled me in the basics of mobile culture and its core appeals. But when it comes to Snapchat, I had to go to the pro for some good use cases.

“I use it a lot every day,” she says. She uses it in place of texting in many cases, sends videos and photos of her playing games to fellow gaming travelers, and will use the live video chat function when her friends are linked together in a chat.

Why send videos here rather than Instagram, another of her favorite channels?

“Snapchat is more private,” she argues. The messages are going to select people or groups and they are not lost in a broadcast feed. She is able to parse her friends into subgroups that are especially appreciative of whatever she wants to share. If it is a gaming win, she grabs the moment of glory in a photo or short video and just sends it to her “guy friends” who also play video games as obsessively as she does.

There are a couple of perennial themes here that my daughter seems to re-teach me from time to time. A lot of the messaging tools that grab younger users are as much about control as they are about communication. As much as we oldsters may think her Milllennial generation is an exhibitionist tribe that has disintegrated private and public walls long ago, in fact they are quite diligent about redefining and policing those lines. Being able to control the channels of communication, how much to communicate, whether one can ignore or engage -- all of these qualities seem to come into play when my daughter embraces a messaging tool or dispenses with an old one. She abandoned Facebook years ago because of its contentious and negative tone. Instagram was a more peaceful and inspiring environment for her. When messaging apps arose, she dove in because they were not about social broadcasting, but more highly controlled exchanges.

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Which is to make perhaps an obvious distinction between the classic channels like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (only one of which my daughter uses) and apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp and Kik. The former are social; the latter are personal. And of course that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to how marketers behave in these channels.  

Interestingly, Snapchat itself underscored this distinction this week when it launched the new Discover area of the app that hosts a dozen media channels. The company claims that these featured news services like CNN, Cosmopolitan, People, ESPN, Yahoo News and even its own channel are driven by editorial teams and their narratives. And they stick it to the likes of Facebook, Reddit and countless news aggregators.

“Social media companies tell us what to read based on what’s most recent or most popular,” they wrote in their blog. "We see it differently. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important.” Perhaps most tellingly, they add: “This is not social media.”

This is an interesting time to stake this claim to old-fashioned editorial voice and independence. After all, even the most storied media brands are chasing clicks and leveraging trend analysis as assiduously as BuzzFeed, Upworthy and the rest. As far as I can see, many of the major news outlets and even niche brands are looking and sounding more and more the same.

To wit: the Discover section of Snapchat is a lot less innovative and editorially impressive than one would hope after Snapchat’s build-up. In most cases, the media brands involved are just piping into Snapchat pretty familiar content, news stories, choice videos, and listicles.

If there is anything striking and attractive here, it comes in the splash pages that top each of the articles you laterally swipe through. This is where the content vaguely resembles the Snapchat videos elsewhere. CNN gives you little video previews of the stories you can scroll into below. To its credit, CNN does have an actual Snapchat-style interview with Sen. Rand Paul.

Many of the news outlets are just doing slight bits of animation on these splash pages and overlaying background elevator music. I like most Yahoo’s use of Katie Couric, who narrates the top stories as you swipe through them. Here at least we come closer to the editorial voice and perspective that Snapchat seems to promise. In fact, Snapchat appears to be really serious about this not being “social media.” They don’t even have tools for sharing stories from discover with fellow Snapchatters. This is a bit dumbfounding to me. It seems to me that the reason that messaging apps want professional content in their apps is to give idle chatters something to talk about.   

If Snapchat is indeed a “personal” rather than a social medium, then it does beg the question of what form more “personal” news takes. One could say that “personalized” news is a kind of personal news. But it seems that is just a filtering trick, not a real innovation in substance and tone. As content migrates not only to more personal screens but even into more intimate apps, I do wonder whether there is an opportunity here for media to think harder about the ways in which it actually brands itself in the digital age. The first decade of digital tended to erase media identity, with crosslinking and the disintegration of well-crafted media environments. The rise of data-driven content further erodes brand distinctions, as everyone in the news ecosystem seems to succumb to clickbait editorial and trend-chasing.

Does mobile offer media an opportunity to rediscover voice, perspective, and identifiable identity again? After all, follow the lesson of my daughter’s generation. They have gravitated to social channel amateurs who provide nothing if not character, perspective, and style. They may not always be laudable, trustworthy or informative, but they may be telling us something about what a more “personal” news genre may really be about. Maybe they want to be talked to like human beings by human beings, not by institutions with inflated and mistaken impressions of their brand’s distinctiveness.

A century of mass media, not surprisingly, gave rise to highly institutionalized, impersonal, corporatized formats, styles and nondescript voices. I am sure that a post-mass media age of fragmentation and intimate channels of delivery invites us to do something more than just parse the same old content into smaller channels. 

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