(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” When Snapchat arrived on the scene about a decade ago, it attracted users with the promise of ephemerality. Disappearing photos you could send to your friends. After a spectacular I.P.O., they hit a slump in 2018 as users flocked to Instagram, which had copied key features from Snapchat. But recently, Snap Inc. has bounced back — or perhaps, should I say, snapped back — thanks to a growing user base, an app redesign that finally worked, and increased ad revenue. Snap’s latest play is a push into augmented reality with AR spectacles. They’re also hoping to offer more content and lure creators to them with a promise of monetization. So will this be enough to beat out competition from tech giants? That’s my big question for Evan Spiegel, co-founder and CEO of Snap Inc. Welcome to Sway, Evan.
Thanks Kara. It’s great to be here.
So let’s start talking about the newest thing you’re doing. And then we’ll get into all kinds of other issues. But augmented reality. I got to try the new augmented reality spectacles the other day. I found them really responsive. I loved the two cameras. I thought it worked beautifully. But they were kind of heavy, still. Explain what they are, because these are not for consumers. You have been in the consumer space with spectacles. So can you just outline what has happened here from the original spectacles which were not the biggest consumer hit, to what you’re trying to do now?
The most simple way to talk about it is really how lenses were created in the beginning. So we found people were using our camera all the time to take selfies and send them to their friends, to show their friends how they were feeling. And we realized with augmented reality, things like, you know, putting little dog ears on your head or vomiting a rainbow or something like that, that that could enhance that self-expression and make people feel more comfortable expressing themselves and sending photos and videos to their friends. So that was the sort of beginning of our AR platform. And then we realized it could be used for so much more, and even things like utility use cases, like trying on clothes or shoes or something like that. So, these are our first pair of spectacles that actually feature AR displays. So they overlay computing on the world around you. They have 3D display too. So things appear to have real physicality and dimensionality in your space. And so, I think that opens up a whole new opportunity for creators to essentially take what’s in their imagination and make it real in the world around them through spectacles.
Right. So let’s go back a little bit. You had had, originally, spectacles which you put on and could record snaps, essentially. Why did you want to do that? And what happened to that experiment?
So we started working on spectacles seven years ago. But obviously, the technical limitations, the hardware limitations, are very real. So, what we decided to do was just start with a simple video camera mounted in glasses to just see how people enjoyed using it and capturing video from their perspective. Which was a new way to capture video. I mean, cameras finally got small enough, batteries got small enough, that you could really capture this point of view. That taught us a lot about the way that people want to wear cameras and want to wear computing every day.
Did you see it as a business originally? Because most people sort of gave you a very hard time when spectacles didn’t take off like hotcakes.
Well we continue to see it as a business, really because it’s the next step in the evolution of the camera. So the smartphone heralded this totally new era for the camera because it put a camera in everyone’s pocket and connected it to the internet. And we believe looking at the future that, ultimately, one of the primary use cases of the camera is going to be augmented reality. And that the best way to experience augmented reality is through glasses. Because it’s much more immersive, it’s hands-free so you can interact with the space around you, sort of in the way that you do with your physical environment.
Right. For people who may have experienced Pokemon Go through your phone, you sort of see the Pokemon Go characters in your bedroom, or whatever. It overlays. So explain the difference between what Google Glass was doing, what Facebook does with Oculus, and this augmented reality.
Well I think what’s most important about augmented reality is that it’s actually overlaid on the world around you. I think there’s something actually —
So you can see the physical world?
Exactly. There’s something really comforting about seeing the horizon, you know? Because it really grounds you in your physical space. You know, we’ve been able to build software that understands the geometry of the environment that you’re in. And so, when you place a virtual object in the room around you, it integrates itself in your surroundings. And I think what’s really exciting about this long-term is that it basically makes computing something you interact with in the same way you’ve interacted with the world, or that humans have interacted with world, for thousands of years.
And how does that contrast with virtual reality?
Virtual reality, I think, is designed to transport you to another place. And I think it’s really ideal for playing games and things like that where you want that immersive experience or you want to take on a different identity, or something like that. What we sort of believe is that virtual reality is going to end up being a pretty small percentage of your overall day. Because it turns out people actually love the world around them. They love hanging out with their friends and experiencing things together with their friends in the physical world. And so, AR, we believe, is a more everyday use case. Because it really just enhances the world that you already really enjoy, rather than taking you somewhere else.
One of them I played, I was out in my backyard and I could see the planets. And as I moved around, I was in the middle of the planets, as they spun and they spun around the sun. And it was quite a beautiful experience. I was sort of surprised how well it was during the middle of the day. And then another one, there was a plant that attacked my other plants. And — there’s a whole bunch of things. There’s poetry. And they’re all super creative. And I still wasn’t sure what I would necessarily use them for going forward. But like, give me some use cases that are useful for average people that won’t be just, “Oh, look. I’m looking at the planets,” which you get bored with at some point.
Well, you know, I actually, I wouldn’t understate the importance of looking at the planets, for example. Because I think that’s a really cool educational use case. And it gives volume to the planets that’s really different than looking at them in a textbook. That can be really instructive from an education perspective. And then I think looking towards the future, we’re really excited about the potential to just reimagine the world around you creatively. So one of the things that we partnered on recently with LACMA was actually —
This is the Los Angeles Museum of Art.
Yeah, sorry. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We paired with them and with artists to reimagine new monuments in Los Angeles. And the reason why this is interesting is because, historically, if you think about making something physical in the world, it’s super expensive, you’ve got to have the land, you’ve got to have a long time. You have to have the political will. And so the things that we as a society choose to remember are actually quite a narrow reflection of our history. And when you think about monuments as a teaching tool, right, and as sort of a signpost for the society we’re trying to create, AR becomes so compelling. Because then anybody in the world can bring to life something that’s important to them or their culture or their own memory. And —
You could also have people make terrible monuments. Like, here’s our monument to Hitler. Here’s our monument to this. You really could run into some real issues potentially, correct?
Well, we have all of our lenses go through a review process and they have to comply with our content guidelines. So —
Right. And you’ve had problems there that you’ve had to pull certain ones over the years. So right now, though, these are — you said these are AR glasses only for creators.
Yeah, that’s correct.
So when do the general public get AR glasses? And what do they look like from your perspective?
Oh, gosh. Well, you know, it’s hard to say right now. Because the approach that we’ve taken is really trying to iterate quickly, and essentially create an environment where we can make a lot of mistakes safely. And so, I think whenever we feel really confident in the spectacles product and the experience and the quality overall, then we’ll sort of leave this experimental phase and make them more widely available. But I don’t think you’re going to see widespread adoption for 10 or more years.
10 or more years? So this is a big bet on a long time from now? That you’re sort of seeding the idea of what AR is. So 10 years down the line, what does it look like in your brain? Like a pair of Ray-Bans? Or — as light as that? Or what?
Yeah, I mean, maybe.
Like, I have Aviators. I’m well known for my Aviators. Would they be in my Aviators?
Aviators would be a good North Star. But they’re going to be a little chunkier than that, I think. I think, like, your average pair of Aviators, let’s say, is 50 grams or something today. And spectacles, the new version, is 134 grams. So I think we’re probably somewhere in the middle and working our way towards a lighter weight form factor.
So when you have to decide between functionality and looks, how difficult is that? Because the bigger it is, the more things it could do. The smaller it is, the more people will wear it.
That is essentially the grand compromise that we’re forced to make with every version of spectacles. Grand compromise might actually be —
No, that’s all right. The iPhone went through it too.
So I think that is essentially the challenge. And that’s why it’s helpful to try to narrow our audience, for example, to creators, who are, frankly, more forgiving. Because they’re more excited about the promise and potential of augmented reality. And so as we look at making those trade-offs, it’s easier to say, we’ll add a few more grams in exchange for better processing or hand tracking or battery life or things like that. Because we know that’s something that creators really care about. So I’d say our approach now is much more oriented on pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with our AR software and AR platform. And then over a much longer time horizon, thinking about how to miniaturize that, manage power, et cetera, to get it to a place where it’s more like your Aviators.
Now a lot of companies are doing this. But within your app, one of the applications is shopping. Snap users can try on clothes, shoes, makeup. Is this translating right now into sales? Do you see that — or is it just mostly teens snapping pictures to flex their particular — whatever they’re flexing? Whatever teens flex these days. I sound like a crazy old lady.
It’s been remarkable to see the uplift in sales when people are able to try on and visualize a product. And part of that, too, is we try to make the conversion really easy. So if you like a pair of shoes you’re trying on, you can tap a button and check out seamlessly. And we store your credit card details and things like that. So I think part of is being able to see and experience that product in AR. Part of it’s removing friction from that process. But when brands started embracing that and using that to grow their businesses, we’ve all been really surprised by the results, frankly.
What worked really well in shopping?
So far, beauty has been a really interesting category. I think that partly was accelerated by the pandemic. You know, you couldn’t go to the mall and try on a lipstick or makeup or something like that. And so product trial, which is integral to the beauty industry — I mean, a huge percentage of their marketing dollars are really spent on product trial — That sort of whole part of that business had to shift online, and into augmented reality. And so I think that was fascinating to watch over the last year. We’re doing more with accessories now. So trying to do things with shoes or jewelry. And clothing is really challenging. So we’re making a lot of investments. It may take a couple of years to make really realistic clothing, because of the way that it drapes across your body and peoples’ different body types and things like that. So that’s a really tough technical challenge. But I think that’ll be exciting as well.
So you’re not the only technology company using AR in the retail space. Amazon, Ikea, others have been trying it out. And they, of course, have an edge when it comes to e-commerce. How do you look at competition from them?
Well, I think there are lots of different types of commerce. One category or websites and services where you already know what you’re looking for. But I think there’s this whole different category of shopping that’s always really been satiated by going to the mall, right? Or talking to friends about new products and things like that. Which is really about discovery. And what we’re seeing is that, on online services like ours, people are discovering new products and exploring new products through videos, for example, also through augmented reality. In the future, we think that’s going to happen through our map. And so, I guess what I would say is that some of these other companies are building sort of shopping-first products. And we are much more oriented around different forms of entertainment or talking with your friends. It’s much more akin to like, walking around a mall with your friends, seeing something in the window and being like, “Oh. That’s cool. We should go try that on.”
Right. But they have — Amazon has a lot of power. Do you consider them the competitors in the shop — because shopping could be very lucrative for a company like yours.
Well, I think what’s so exciting is that e-commerce overall is growing so quickly. And obviously, the United States, in terms of shopping, as a percentage of e-commerce, we still lag other countries like China or — for example. And so I think the overall market is growing so quickly that I don’t think we’re yet experiencing zero-sum competition. I think there’s a lot of space for lots of different folks to grow.
All right. Speaking of which, Apple is also moving in here. Tim Cook was recently on “Sway” and he indicated that Apple had a lot of interest in AR. So, how do you look at their movement into the space?
I’d say they’ve been really great partners. You know, they’ve made the fundamental investments that have made Snapchat possible on phones. And they’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with the hardware. So for example, with their latest lidar sensor, we were able to release lenses far beyond anything we could have built, frankly, without it.
Explain what that is.
A lidar sensor essentially uses lasers to map the environment around you. And does it in a much more fine grained way than just using the camera. And so very, very quickly, almost instantaneously, you can understand the geometry of a space, which is really important for placing AR objects and things like that. And so, that hardware sensor, and of course, a lot of the investments they’ve been making on the chip side as well, in machine learning and things like that, have allowed us to deliver a totally world class AR experience for our community.
But do you see them as a competitor? I mean, hello, Spotify. They compete. When they decide an area is important to them, they move in. Like commerce, they could certainly decide that’s important to them.
I’d like to think that really they benefit when we’re successful. Because we give people a reason to use iPhones and buy the latest generation of iPhone with lidar and things like that. But, you know, they’re a very ambitious company. It’s certainly possible in the future that they’ll want to do more things that are similar to Snapchat or something like that. But so far, we’ve been able to grow our business because they’ve been focused on building tools to make people like us successful.
So AR isn’t the only way you’re expanding. Let’s talk about the Spotlight Program, which might help you be more competitive in this landscape. Explain what it is.
Yeah, definitely. So Spotlight is a new way for people who create really creative or fun snaps to essentially submit them to be viewed by the entire Snapchat community. And that’s something that’s new for us. Because historically, we were really worried about videos going viral on Snap. And that’s something that we were just concerned may have negative repercussions for our community. And so it took us a really long time to develop this platform. And of course, we’ve developed a mechanism to moderate all of the snaps that are submitted. But what’s really fun is that now as a creator, you can submit a video and reach the entire Snapchat audience based on how engaging it is. And of course, we’ve seen a lot of growth there recently.
It reminds me of TikTok, perhaps? That’s what it — is — is that incorrect? Because that sounds like TikTok to me.
No, not at all. It’s not incorrect. We’ve over the years always seen snaps, essentially, go viral on Twitter, or go viral on TikTok, go viral on Instagram. And we always felt like, oh gosh. Like, this is clearly something our community wants to do. And they’re going to other platforms to share these videos. Why don’t we create a safe and responsible way for them to do it on Snapchat? And that’s really what Spotlight represents.
Were you too slow to do this because of concerns? And what were those concerns?
I certainly think that was part of it. And we also had some prototypes of vertical scrolling video and whatnot a long time ago. But we had our hands full following the I.P.O. And of course, our really challenging redesign, which, I think was done for absolutely the right reasons and has proven to be the right choice. But was very disruptive at the time. But as we looked at other places, what we’ve seen over time is that when you create a platform where anyone can broadcast content to as many people as they want — millions and millions of people — sometimes that content can be hurtful. It can be hate speech. It can be violent. And that historically, unfortunately, the data suggests that the most inflammatory and hurtful content actually spreads the furthest and fastest. So our content platform has always been closed. We’ve decided what content is allowed to reach a large audience on Snap. We decide what official accounts are allowed to reach our audience in discover.
The stuff that goes out widely is what you’re talking about.
Exactly. Yeah. So we essentially borrowed from the way that the government of the United States has managed communications and broadcast content over a really long period of time. So the government has essentially said, for communications with small groups of friends, say whatever you want. You’ve got a right to privacy. And even if it’s inappropriate or inflammatory, the government essentially has to get a warrant to figure out what you’re saying. And on the other hand, with broadcast content, the government has applied a much higher standard to what you’re allowed to broadcast on television, for example. And so, we’ve built that into our platform with our content guidelines. And that’s why, as I mentioned, we were concerned about a platform that essentially allows videos to go viral. And we really had to build a lot of this moderation infrastructure where humans actually review the content that’s reaching a large audience. And it took us some time to get comfortable doing that.
And what is — the discomfort is seeing what had happened over at Facebook or Twitter or wherever, just watching this stuff — hate speech, essentially — roll all over the place very easily.
Yeah. I’d say we’ve been fortunate to have the benefit to learn from challenges we’ve seen elsewhere.
Right. And there are a lot of similarities between Spotlight and TikTok. Is that a coincidence? Or did you think their version was the smarter way to do it? Because they do things based on, I think, your likes, not your friends’.
Yeah, exactly. So they essentially figured out that they could rank content based on interest. That’s something that we’ve been doing for a long time with Discover. That was where we said, you know, actually, we’re not going to show you articles that have been liked or promoted by your friends. We’re going to take this pool of content created by credible publishers that we partner with. And then we’re going to use machine learning to figure out which of those articles you might be interested in. So —
Area of interest, right. And then you can easily cut off white supremacists just like that, if you’re interested in — you know, you can easily control that comparatively than what your friends like, correct?
Well, the easiest way to control that is actually just to decide what pool of content you’re going to personalize from. And so, what I think happens with some other internet platforms is the pool of content that they’re using to personalize is the entire internet. And the entire internet does have some unsavory content on it. And so when you’re ranking content from across the entire internet instead of a more narrow group of publishers and official accounts that comply with your guidelines, sometimes inappropriate content can be displayed to members of your community. So what we’ve done is essentially by defining this pool of content that complies with our guidelines, and then using machine learning-driven recommendations, we get the benefits of personalization without some of the downsides of having a totally open sort of content ecosystem where inappropriate content could be surfaced.
Right. Now TikTok had this thing. It becomes — so you see more enjoyable things. You don’t see as inflammatory things, you can’t go down a hole of — the biggest hole I’ve gone down on TikTok is tie dye, which was horrifying. I don’t know why it surfaced tie dye for me. But you know, it’s not the only similarity. You’ve announced a new show starring Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, two of the most popular TikTokkers. You’re handing out a million dollars per day to creators. Are you at war with TikTok?
I don’t think so. And you know, Charli and Dixie, obviously, have been using Snapchat for a really long time. Snapchat’s been around before TikTok came along. And so what we found is that a lot of the Snap stars use both platforms and use Instagram and other services as well to express themselves and reach a really large audience.
It took you a while to do this. You were dealing more with regular publishers, correct? You were dealing with established media companies. Meanwhile, over at Instagram and YouTube and elsewhere, the creator market has waxed and waned. They’ve gotten unhappy with certain models. YouTube certainly had a big shake up of its creator model. Why did it take you so long to do this?
Well, I think the reason is actually what you just pointed out, which is that a lot of other businesses for a really long time have been very focused on influencers. And so, our opportunity to differentiate was really with premium publishers and premium content. Because there was a real lack of that available, especially for our audience. If you think about today, most premium content is behind a paywall. And so if you’re a young person trying to get access to timely and accurate information, it’s harder to do today. And what we found was that by creating this model where we share revenue with publishers, they’re willing to publish that information on Snapchat. And our community really benefits and gets content that, frankly, they’re not seeing anywhere else. And so that was a big focus for us and continues to be because it’s very differentiated. And, what we saw over time — and this was really the impetus of the redesign — was that not only were Snapchatters really enjoying talking with their friends and seeing what their friends were up to, but increasingly, they wanted to hear from and see snaps from celebrities. And you know, unfortunately, because the way our app was architected at the time, we actually combined that influencer content with content from your friends. And so, influencers that were posting all the time were always at the top of that friends list. And that was something that was concerning to us. Because our service is really oriented around close friends. And what we had to do with the redesign was to separate out that influencer content, essentially put it below your friends. And that frustrated a lot of influencers. Because it reduced the audience that they were able to reach. And so I think what we’ve been trying to do ever since is make Snapchat a place that creators really want to invest, where they can reach a really big audience. But we don’t compromise the experience people want to have with their close friends and family. And that we really put close friends and family first.
But you’re really a communications company. It’s been your bread and butter since day one, I think, with a focus on this one-to-one communication. But you leave out this idea of the influencer economy. And people sort of do make fun of it. But monetization is what’s important. So how do you — like, you have Instagram offering to monetize them. You’ve got YouTube. You have TikTok. They’ve got a lot of choices. What do you think your biggest argument for monetizing on Snapchat would be?
Well, I think what people are really looking for, at least from what we’ve understood, is fame, fortune, and also the ability to be creative. And so, of course, we offer a really big audience. You know, nearly 300 million people use Snapchat now every single day. We share revenue with creators through our Spotlight rewards program. And of course now with Gifting, which we’re really excited to have launched.
Well, explain Gifting. This is a new feature. So can you explain what Gifting is?
Yeah, definitely. So if you are a big fan of a Snap star, and you really like their content, you can use Snap Tokens, which is our in-app currency to buy a gift for them. And that prioritizes your reply to their posts so that, then, you can start a conversation with them really easily.
Being able to moderate this is really important. Viral stuff that goes to millions of people is very different from what the heart of your business is. You’re a much smaller company than Facebook or YouTube or others. And you have less resources. How are you going to jibe that with this interest in getting these creators to use Snapchat as the place to be?
We really do try to apply our content guidelines rigorously and fairly to all accounts. So you’re right that will be a competitive disadvantage for us in the short term. But in the long term, what we believe is that our community wants a positive, constructive and healthy content experience. And that if we continue to uphold those standards that, over the long run, our community will really value that and also trust us more as a result.
We’ll be back in a minute.
If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on Sway episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Reddit CEO, Steve Huffman. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Evan Spiegel after the break.
You’ve long been in a rivalry with Facebook. Obviously, Mark Zuckerberg tried to buy Snapchat back in 2013, reportedly for $3 billion. You’re now valued over $77 billion. So I don’t know what your stake in Facebook would have been at that moment. But did you ever regret turning that offer down?
No, not in the slightest, actually. What’s been so important to us really has been the ability to continue building Snapchat according to our own vision. And I think what’s become more and more clear since we made that decision is that these visions are very divergent. These visions for the world maybe couldn’t be more different. And so I think it would have been very painful and challenging for us to have to compromise that vision by working with any other company.
But then after that happened, they put a lot of threats up for you. Snapchat was obviously a threat to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. In the end, was able to lure back users by introducing new features that were just a lift of what you were doing on Stories. Filters, disappearing messages. Do you credit that for the 2018 stock declines that you had at the time? People were worried they were going to put you out of business.
Oh, I don’t think it was just the competitive pressure. I mean, we made a lot of really challenging long term decisions around that time. So if you remember, that was also when we rolled out our ad platform, which was auction-based. So we essentially went from direct selling ads to selling them through an auction. And C.P.M.s declined, like, I think 98 percent or something like that. And so when your C.P.M.s decline 98 percent, and you’re still trying to grow revenue, it’s really challenging. And of course we did this redesign, which at the time, was very controversial, even though we believed it was the right thing to do to focus on close friends and family, and actually to separate out that influencer content, as we talked about before. So I think it was a confluence of a number of different things. But, you know, I guess we did not fully realize when we were going public — everyone warned us. And our friends were like, you really don’t understand. The markets are really short term. But we didn’t really get it until that time period. Because we were talking about all the amazing things we were doing over the long term, why we were making these decisions, why we thought they’d be really valuable in the long term. And we just remember feeling like nobody cared. Right? They were really focused on the numbers. Today.
Well, they were also focused on what Facebook was copying from you. And that happens with Amazon, and it happens with a lot of other small companies. It’s happening right now to Clubhouse, because everybody’s copying their particular jam that they’ve got. And as you know, I’ve often called you the Chief Product Officer of Facebook, because they do borrow a lot of your features. Do you see them doing it here with AR?
You know, nothing particularly yet. I know they’re focused on AR and investing in it. But as you mentioned, I think every technology company is really focused on augmented reality right now. And I think what’s so exciting about it is no one’s totally figured it out yet. So I’m not sure there’s anything to copy yet, in the sense that it’s all still very undefined. And people are sort of working towards their own different visions and sort of theses, I guess, for what AR can look like in the future.
All right. Let me turn the tables on you then. Because I think you’re not going to say anything here. But is there any product that you would shoplift from Facebook? I call them “shoplifters.”
Well, I guess what I would say that we really admire, they have incredibly brilliant people working there. They are unbelievably good at optimizing technology. And so I think as we look at them and really their technical capabilities, I mean, they’ve just been able to attract really extraordinary people. And so, we definitely admire that. And of course, they’ve got this just really strong competitive spirit that drives all of that technical focus and innovation. And that’s something that we really admire.
So their technical expertise. That’s not a very good compliment, is it? Nothing they make. But boy, are they good at — whatever. All right. They’re good at driving the car that they didn’t make. O.K. You have something that Facebook is surely jealous of. Your users tend to skew younger than most social platforms. You reported that around 90 percent of Americans aged 13 to 24 use your app. Is that your biggest advantage?
One of the reasons why I think it’s so important is because young people tend to be more open to trying and adopting new technology. And so — whereas — as we’re investing in things like augmented reality, young people are generally the first to say, “Oh, let me try that out. That’s really cool.” But it also, of course, raises the bar in terms of our responsibility to our community. Because if they’re going to trust us to try all of these new products and all these new experiences, they have to know that we’ve been really thoughtful from the beginning about their design, right? And we built privacy into it. We built safety directly into those products.
Right. Which is something called knowing consequences before they happen. Facebook, for example, reportedly plans to launch a version of Instagram for kids under 13, which 44 attorneys general have strongly objected to in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg. I just completely object. You have three kids. I have three kids. So what are your thoughts on social media for young kids?
Oh gosh. Well, I feel like I bring, like, maybe an interesting perspective to this conversation. Because I grew up with social media myself. And I made all sorts of dumb mistakes with social media. And —
Yeah. So I feel like —
We’ve moved on from that. I’m not even going to even go there.
So, you know, so I feel like having had those experiences, it’s really informed a lot of the way that we’ve built our product and thought about the role that Snapchat can play, especially for teenagers. And one of the things we’ve noticed with Snapchat is, because it’s so oriented around close friends, that it’s arguably maybe a safer environment to make mistakes. And so, I think sort of understanding and assuming that young people are going to make mistakes, and then designing software really to anticipate that, is something that’s really important. It’s why people — they each have to decide that they want to communicate with one another. It’s why we have all these tools to flag inappropriate content, things like that. So you can get help if and when you need it. So I think —
So — but in terms of that, would you make a Snapchat for kids? Would you think about that? Or do you think it’s just too fraud?
I don’t think we’d make a Snapchat for kids where people could communicate with one another. I just don’t think that’s really appropriate for people under the age of 13. That’s my personal opinion. I mean, some of the things that we see kids really like and enjoy are lenses, right? And I think maybe a standalone camera or something like that where you could use our lenses and play around with AR or something, like, that could be fun. And even —
So that it’s a closed loop so they can’t go anywhere.
Yeah. Like, maybe that. It would be, like, a fun place to start or a product that would be appropriate for young people. And of course, we’d have to make sure the lenses that we select were really actually appropriate for kids under the age of 13.
I’m guessing you can’t comment too much. But a new lawsuit was filed against Snap recently. The lead plaintiff is the mother of a late 16-year-old who took his life after being bullied on Yolo and LMK, your anonymous messaging apps. The complaint says that these apps should be classified as dangerous products. You’ve suspended both these apps. But what else are you doing behind this scenes to make sure apps aren’t dangerous?
In the case of Yolo, as a business, we’ve decided not to create products where people can communicate anonymously. But because we’ve opened our developer platform to now, you know, hundreds of thousands of developers, they’re making different integrations with their own applications that allow them essentially to publish to Snapchat, so that people can link to that application through Snapchat. And we have a really rigorous review process. And actually as part of that review process, with Yolo, for example, we talked to them about what moderation programs they had in place to try to prevent bullying. And we got comfortable with what they told us at the time was their process for those sorts of complaints and that sort of bullying. So that essentially, that their users could get the benefits of anonymity, like sharing with a crush that you like them or something like that, without the downsides of bullying. And we have yet to determine what has actually happened in this instance. That’s why we decided just to suspend those applications until we can look more deeply at this issue and understand what went wrong.
Are you looking at other apps that could be similar? And thinking of suspending those?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’re essentially auditing our entire developer platform at the moment.
O.K. So another recent case against Snap alleged the Snapchat speed filter led a Wisconsin teen to drive recklessly, eventually crashed into a tree, killing himself and two others. The U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals recently ruled that Snapchat can be held accountable for its role in the crash. You removed that filter. Are there others that you will be removing?
Not at this time. It obviously was a devastating circumstance. And, you know, we’re really thoughtful about the design of our products. They go through a really rigorous review process before we release them, both in terms of safety and in terms of privacy. And, in this instance, we always thought that the car obviously has a speedometer. And so if people wanted to know the speed, they can look at the speedometer and make a video of it or something. And so we didn’t necessarily understand the implications of using the speed filter in that way. But obviously, since then, we’ve just disabled it for driving speeds.
O.K. The appeals court in this case reversed an earlier decision that cited Section 230, the law which shields tech companies from being held liable for behavior of its users. Will the reversal of this ruling be affecting your reliance on 230 for protection? It’s right now in the news all over. And politicians are on the attack of 230 and the protections that it afforded tech companies like yours and others.
Well, gosh. I guess at a high level, it’s important to clarify. 230 is not an umbrella liability protection. It doesn’t just allow technology companies to do whatever they want. And we’re of course, responsible for our platform. Section 230 is actually quite narrowly focused on speech. There’s two parts of it. The first part essentially says that, if someone’s using a platform to speak and express themselves, the platform isn’t held liable for what that person says. And second, that that platform has a legal ability to moderate what is said on the platform. Again, without being held liable for what is said in the first place. And I think, ultimately, that piece of legislation really was quite brilliant. And it’s hard to imagine the internet that we enjoy today, with, for example, where I can see reviews of all restaurants around Los Angeles from folks who have actually visited those restaurants without Google or Yelp or whatever being sued for hosting them. That’s a really big deal. And that’s contributed to a huge and beneficial flow of information in our society. I think what you’re speaking to specifically seems to be really two issues. One, should platforms not only have a legal ability to moderate content, but should they be required to moderate certain types of content? And two, does that moderation infringe upon political speech, for example? And I think both of those proposals really run head on into the First Amendment. And so I think when people are talking about Section 230, they’re really talking about the First Amendment, right? Because —
Indeed. They conflate them quite a bit.
Yeah. And I think, for example, if we talked about the intersection of the First Amendment and 230, I think there could be an interesting middle ground where the government requires platforms to remove content that isn’t protected by the First Amendment, right? Like, that’s a pretty obvious and straightforward evolution in 230 that maybe wouldn’t come up against the same First Amendment challenges, right? But I think some of this stuff around how moderation infringes upon free speech, frankly, will just have a hard time getting through the courts. Because in our country, we’ve decided that the government can’t determine what businesses or people can or can’t say. And that that’s been actually critically important to the evolution of a free and fair society where people can express their points of view.
This is a good defense of companies like — that are dealing with this. But tech is facing enormous headwinds. And it’s largely not because of you. I mean, a lot of people in tech that are like you, that have been very responsible in comparison, are getting slapped. You’re big tech. Look at Tucker Carlson on any given night of the week. You’re worse than Satan, essentially. What do you see coming for all of you? Largely because of the behaviors of some.
It’s so hard to say. The internet — when many of these businesses were just starting, the internet was highly experimental. It was a totally new thing. And in fact, a lot of people viewed it as separate from the real world. I mean, that was one of the big challenges that we identified when we were starting our business. And this fallacy, this idea that the internet is separate from the real world, essentially allowed the internet to develop a whole different set of rules, norms, and behaviors as it grew up, that increasingly were separated from the rules, norms and behaviors we share every day when we interact in physical space. So I think that challenge, right, that many of these platforms essentially began at a time when the internet was more like the Wild West, was this experiment, has to evolve and catch up with the fact that the internet is now vital to all of our lives, the way that we work, the way that we learn, the way that we relate to one another. And I think this is going to inform the way people develop new technologies. I mean, it’s really informed our much more experimental and step-by-step approach with spectacles, so we can really learn along the way. So understanding the serious ramifications technology can have as it becomes pervasive in society, I think, is just critically important.
What is it about technologists, though, that don’t anticipate consequences? When you looked at what happened at the Capitol, there’s no way you couldn’t see the influence of social media on some — now listen. You could stack rank the people who attacked the Capitol, Donald Trump, all kinds of people. But social media was right in there is one of the instigators of what happened. What do we do about that?
I think as I think about it, there are a couple of different factors. One, if we go back to the origins of the internet, they were really rooted in this idealism, right? If you look at Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog and this idea that information was going to be liberated, I think there was an incredible amount of idealism and enthusiasm around this new technology. And frankly, maybe, less discussion about some of the drawbacks. And that’s probably what allowed the internet to get so much momentum, that people were so excited and saw the promise. I think it’s hard to anticipate how these technologies and tools can change when they’re used by billions of people instead of a million. Or millions. And I think, obviously, the likelihood or the odds that something unpredictable or bad will happen really increase, right, as you go beyond a million, 10 million, a billion people. And so, I think the question is not so much, why can’t we anticipate everything that goes wrong? It’s, how do we respond when something unanticipated happens? Right? How do we learn from that, evolve technology to better meet the needs of humanity? How do we change and grow and learn based on those experiences? And so, I don’t think we should necessarily expect that people will be able to anticipate everything that could go wrong in the future. But I do think we should expect companies, when things do go wrong, to learn from them and really to make changes.
All right, my very last question. If they break up these tech companies, is that good for companies like yours? Is it a good thing for there to be smaller companies that compete more on creativity and innovation?
So I absolutely think competition is essential. And I think it’s been a feature of the technology industry for a really long time. It’s a highly competitive industry. It’s one of the things that makes it so fun. I think, right now, there seems to be like a little bit of a fixation on tech companies are big and that’s the problem. And I think that’s a little bit of a misnomer, in the sense that I think, if we look at other countries, whether that’s folks in Europe or even in China, they’re much more focused on the behavior of companies and less so the size. And I think that’s actually increasingly important here in the United States. Because the U.S. has really become overly reliant on the private sector to drive that sort of long term innovation and things like artificial intelligence, biotechnology, whatever. And so I think where the United States is today, we really need large, successful companies. What we don’t need is anti-competitive behavior. And so I think differentiating between the two, finding a way to make sure that we continue to have really big, successful, global companies. But at the same time, really expecting those companies to operate in a way that benefits society, much like the way that we did when the corporate charter was first invented. The big idea was, if you want a corporate charter, you have to demonstrate how your company is good for our society. And companies had to be really vocal about that. And I think there’s a return of that idea that businesses need to serve society, and actually have a moral obligation to do the right thing for society. And of course, they’re going to make mistakes. People make mistakes. But how they respond to those mistakes and evolve beyond them is what’s important.
Evan, I really appreciate it. Good luck with these glasses. They are pretty cool. I have to say, they’re pretty cool.
I mean, we’re just getting started. We’ll see what happens.
All right. Thanks.
All right, bye.
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Daphne Chen. Edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Erick Gomez, and fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts. So follow this one. If you’re listening on the Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, download any podcast app, then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. And Facebook, if you’re listening — you better not copy this podcast too.