Evan Spiegel on maps, Minis, and the future of Snapchat

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On Thursday Snap held its second-ever partner summit as a virtual event, announcing a new suite of products and developer tools for Snapchat. The inaugural event was one of the more memorable tech productions I’ve been to — a high-energy keynote from CEO Evan Spiegel in front of giant vertical screens on a converted Hollywood sound stage, at which he introduced the company’s games platform. And so I was disappointed when, along with every other big gathering planned for this year, the event was scaled down to a video chat.

But if the scale of the event was much smaller, the announcements arguably signaled even more ambition. Snap has had a good year, buoyed — like every other social app — by a lockdown that kept people indoors for months on end, glued to their phones. The company says more use Snapchat every day than Twitter and TikTok combined. And on Thursday it introduced a product called Minis, which aim to expand Snapchat’s capabilities into e-commerce, meditation, studying, and anything else third-party developers can dream up.

I wrote about Minis at The Verge:

Snap today announced Minis, a suite of miniature applications made by third-party developers that run inside of Snapchat. Minis are built using HTML and enable a range of experiences from meditating alone to buying movie tickets with friends. Minis, which are integrated into the chat window on Snapchat, were one of several new features announced today at Snap’s virtual Partner Summit.

The existence of Minis was first reported last month by The Information, which likened them to the mini programs that have turned WeChat into one of the most popular apps in China. The programs — which let users buy food, pay their bills, and complete other tasks — generated $113 billion for WeChat last year, up 160 percent from the year prior, The Information reported. The company takes a cut of purchases made through the app.

Minis were the big headline to come out of the event, but they were preceded by several other noteworthy features: the app’s first navigation bar; a revamped Snap Map that now includes local businesses; and an editorially curated news platform called Happening Now.

Ahead of the event, I talked with Spiegel about the company’s ambitions, whether the pandemic had shifted its roadmap, and whether the Snap Map will eventually add turn-by-turn directions. (Don’t hold your breath.) I also asked a him to talk about his recent blog post asserting Snap’s First Amendment rights to amplify speech as it sees fit, and his response is worth reading.

Highlights from our interview follow, edited lightly for clarity.

Casey Newton: Some people have suggested that Minis could be to Snapchat what miniature programs have been for WeChat. Is that the right way of thinking about them?

Evan Spiegel: One of the things that’s so unique about minis is that they provide these shared experiences with friends. Today, I think the app experience on people’s phones tends to be very siloed. In order to do anything with friends, it just takes a lot of work. So I think one of the cool things about Minis is it takes these little things that are actually frustrating, and take a lot of time to do and are pretty siloed, and just makes it easier to do and more fun to do with your friends.

Maybe the easiest example is just movie tickets. It’s such a hassle — you text your friend, do you want to go to the movies? What do you want to see? You both go back and forth and like send links, or screenshots, and then try to find a time, and try to find a seat. Why is it so hard? And to be able to do that together in a couple taps in a Mini, it just feels really different. And so I think like that’s where they can really provide value, by removing a lot of friction.

So you know, we’re just trying to learn. But I think what’s so cool is we built this really sophisticated engine for gaming. Actually, that was the much harder problem. And the easier problem is taking that really sophisticated engine and then applying it to other experiences, like buying movie tickets,

Five years in the future, do you see a day where people are constantly opening up Snapchat to transact business as they go around town?

You know, maybe. But I actually think it has the ability to power more e-commerce. I’d think more about a shared shopping experience, or something that’s actually online.

Let’s say you’re getting ready with your friends, or your school dance is two weeks from now — you can actually shop together with your friends, which I think could be a really fun experience.

You’re also turning the camera into a device that better understands the world around you, with these new features that identify plants and trees and dogs. In past we’ve talked about the camera as a tool for capturing the world and being creative. Where does this other piece fit in?

It’s definitely something we’ve been excited about working on, but it’s actually hard! Which is why it’s taken us a while to start building this foundation. Even something just as simple and fun as recommending the right lenses for you when you’re at the beach, and I think that’s a really compelling use case — [but]even something that’s simple, that requires really understanding the environment around you and then matching the right AR experience. So a lot of it was just building a basic foundation and understanding, and now hopefully we’ll be able to build a lot more on top of that. In the next couple years, I really think we can accelerate the different ways we can help people.

Some people may not realize that their Snapchat camera can identify plants or dogs. It reminds me of the issue you have with Alexa, or Siri, which is that all the most powerful features are invisible. How do you think about that problem?

I totally agree with you. You know, discoverability, at least for us, is always the problem we actually solve last. One of the things we want to do is make sure that the technology works really well and provides a great experience for power users, who basically help us learn how to make it better. And then we make it more discoverable.

So actually, at [the partner summit], we’re making premium content and the map more discoverable — but that’s after many years of working on those products. So the discoverability piece, I agree with you, is something that we’ll have to improve. But we want to make sure that core experience is awesome.

You mentioned making the Snap Map more prominent. Adding local businesses feels like a significant step. But I’m guessing you don’t see yourself eventually adding turn-by-turn directions. So how do you want it to evolve?

I guess never say never, but I don’t see [directions]being our priority.

When we look at building products we’re always trying to build something that’s 10 times better than the next best alternative. I think it would be really hard to be 10x better than Google at turn-by-turn. It’s definitely not a priority of ours.

I think where we do see a real opportunity is in personalizing the map, and making it reflect the world the way that you see it. I understand why driving directions and roads and things like that need to be standardized for everybody, and everyone needs to have the same map. But for us, the way that we see the map opportunity is really about creating a map that reflects who you are — who your friends are, what they’re doing, and what the world looks like right now, because you can see people’s snaps.

And now with businesses, I think what’s going to be so cool is that no matter where you are in the world, you can see the places that are popular with Snapchatters. You can see when they’re popular. And I think we’re going to do a much better job over time, highlighting and surfacing you know the right businesses for you based on who you are, so that I think is just a big opportunity. I frankly I feel like we waited too long to add businesses to the map. But you know we’re really excited about what this means going forward and I think they’ll be great to build on.

So like a lot of social apps, Snap saw a surge in usage in the last quarter as people were trapped indoors. Other companies changed up their product roadmaps or accelerated certain features to reflect those new behaviors. Has Snap done any of that?

This has not frankly, been a time to rethink the roadmap. As we look at developing products, we really think over a pretty extended period of time. And so, in our view, while certain behavior patterns have definitely been accelerated, and maybe permanently, structurally changed, like e-commerce — that actually further accelerates the current roadmap that we have, and maybe gets us to some places faster than we thought we’d get there.

But it doesn’t change the world that we’re imagining. So we definitely view COVID as a temporary event — even though some behaviors may change, I think building for everyone staying at home probably doesn’t reflect the way that humans really like to interact with one another.

Finally, the Trump campaign accused you of illegal election interference because you’re not promoting the president’s account any more. Any thoughts?

I think that, very simply, Snapchat exercised its First Amendment rights to choose what it does as a platform. We’re well within our rights to choose what we want to promote. And in this case, we didn’t think it’s appropriate to promote violence to the young people that use our service. So we did what we think was the right thing to do.

I think the interesting thing is that we do seem to be in the middle of a very odd misunderstanding of the First Amendment, which is designed to protect individuals and businesses from the government. Companies can all decide whatever they want to put on their platforms. They’re well within their rights to do that as private businesses.

Well, can’t say I saw this one coming:

A year after quitting the company over differences with CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the company’s direction, Chris Cox is returning to Facebook as its chief product officer. The company said today that Cox would resume in his duties, which include overseeing the core Facebook app, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, along with marketing.

“Facebook and our products have never been more relevant to our future,” Cox said in a post announcing his return. “It’s also the place I know best, and the best place for me to roll up my sleeves and dig in to help.”

The thing about Chris Cox is that basically everybody likes him. Between 2005, when he joined the company, and 2019, when he left, Cox became a top lieutenant to Zuckerberg but also the kind of person people would tell you is “the heart and soul of the company.” That’s why, when he left — in an occasion momentous enough to warrant an emergency newsletter that I wrote on the plane back from South by Southwest — I said the move would be bad for morale.

As the person who spoke to most new classes of Facebook employees when they showed up at their weekly onboarding meetings, Cox was instrumental in passing the company’s culture and values to new hires. He would also reassure employees who worried that Facebook lacks a moral compass.

An engineer who joined the company in 2012 and left earlier this year put it to me this way:

When I first started at FB I had moral qualms about things Facebook was doing, like time spent and the invasiveness of the mobile apps. I talked to Cox in a panic a few times and I got the impression he really cared about the user and actually put them first, before growth or profits. I don’t think his viewpoint won out in the end, and we should be realistic about the massive problem FB is for the world today, but he’s the best of the leadership.

A former product manager told me Cox “is a huge motivator for employees” and “the life of the party.” (He does play in a reggae band.) That’s one reason why, even years ago, Facebook employees would tell me that if Zuckerberg ever stepped aside Cox would be a strong candidate for CEO. He’s a warm, gregarious presence, and a talented product manager, and now he’s overseeing some of the most important products in the world: the Facebook app, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. (He’ll also oversee marketing.)

Some things I’ll be watching for in the coming weeks and months:

In any case, I can tell you what Cox told Facebook employees during a company all-hands meeting today. (Because people always ask when I share stuff like this: no, the company did not send this to me, and they generally hate it when people leak things, and Zuckerberg even complained about leaks during the all-hands today.)

Anyway, Cox said in part:

Obviously, it’s been a crazy 2020. I think around the beginning of the year, I started feeling myself really pulled back to Facebook. I’ve been really impressed and proud of the work we’ve done on misinformation, on COVID, on dealing with safety in an encrypted environment. And I’m getting aligned around the product strategies.

So I was feeling — because of the context of the time we’re in, and also because of the company’s operation in the year I’ve been gone — some combination of nostalgia and excitement about the importance of our work in the future.

I also think there’s a really interesting context around the future of work and education and connectedness that COVID has brought us. I’m watching my son, who’s 5, trying to use Zoom to be educated as a kindergartener, and learn how to mute. And there’s no app layer, and there’s no tools, and the latency is bad. And I feel like we have a really unique opportunity to contribute to the way that people are connected to their loved ones and to their colleagues into their work over the many years ahead. And I think if we’re gonna have a silver lining from these moments, it will be that one, we’re able to deliver better tools for remote engagement, and two, we’re able to elevate our platform as having a role in equalizing injustice.

For all those reasons, I’m re-energized, and I’m super stoked about coming back to work with my team, and with Mark, Sheryl, Shroep, and Javi. Everyone I talked to has been super re-energized about getting reconnected with the company, and hopefully helping out. So I look forward to getting started again.

His first day back is June 22nd.

Yesterday I wrote about how tech companies are using astroturf campaigns to influence public opinion during the current antitrust debate. One thing I said was that, after a 2011 incident, we didn’t hear much about astroturfing at Facebook. A smart reader pointed out that I was being extremely dumb: Facebook got in trouble in 2018 for hiring a firm called Definers to push back on some things George Soros had said about the company at Davos, and one of its tactics was pushing its talking points to a partisan news site that it happened to share an office with. I wrote about this extensively at the time, but forgot to mention it when I should.

If you have any ideas on how I can remember all of the things that have happened to Facebook, even for just the past few years, I’m listening.

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: Apple CEO Tim Cook announced a new Racial Equity and Justice Initiative with a $100 million commitment. The initiative will focus on the US to start before expanding globally. (Michael Potuck / 9To5Mac)

Trending up: YouTube is launching a $100 million fund to amplify the voices of black creators on its platform. The money will go toward developing talent and funding new shows. (Taylor Lyles / The Verge)

Trending up: A coalition of tech giants including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter have backed a five-fold plan to “eradicate” child sexual abuse on the internet. The coalition says it will invest millions of dollars into research and publish annual reports on its progress in tackling abusive content. The move comes amid increasing regulatory pressure in the United States to do more. (Ryan Browne / CNBC)

Trending down: Snap won’t release its diversity numbers publicly. This is a case where sunlight really is the best disinfectant, and Snap ought to follow its peers — however the bad the numbers are. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)

Trending down: Google is placing ads on websites that publish health misinformation about COVID-19. Ads for organizations like One Medical and UNICEF have been showing up on conspiracy theory websites, allowing those sites to monetize their content, and making money for Google. (Ruth Reader / Fast Company)

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is stepping up its criticism of Facebook. On Thursday, the campaign will circulate a petition, along with an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, demanding the company strengthen its rules against misinformation and hold politicians accountable for harmful speech. Here’s New York Times reporter Cecilia Kang:

The move puts the Biden camp in the center of a raging debate about the role and responsibility of tech platforms. Civil rights leaders, Democratic lawmakers and many of Facebook’s own employees say that big tech companies have a responsibility to prevent false and hateful information from being shared widely.

But conservatives, including Mr. Trump, accuse social media companies that have tightened their speech policies, like Twitter and Snap, of political bias. Two weeks ago, after Twitter attached fact-checking notices to two of the president’s tweets that made false claims about voter fraud, Mr. Trump signed an executive order that would make it easier for federal regulators to argue that the companies are suppressing free speech.

Some Facebook employees are considering refusing to interview potential hires, over frustration that Zuckerberg didn’t take action against Trump’s protest posts. They say it’s hard to recommend working at Facebook in this moment. (Ali Breland / Mother Jones)

The Trump administration has tapped Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to create new legislation targeting Section 230, the tech industry’s liability shield. Hawley thinks content moderation should be illegal and does not have anything good to say about the First Amendment, so this one ought to be a doozy. (Margaret Harding McGill / Axios)

The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Amazon and eBay to stop selling products that falsely claim to protect against COVID-19. Under the new orders, the companies have to take the products off their websites and certify they have done so. (Jennifer A Dlouhy / Bloomberg)

European Union officials are preparing to bring antitrust charges against Amazon for abusing its dominance in online retail to box out smaller rivals. The case promises to be one of the most aggressive attempts by a government to curb Amazon’s power yet. (Adam Satariano / The New York Times)

Microsoft won’t sell police its facial-recognition technology, following similar announcements this week by Amazon and IBM. With billions of dollars of revenue on the line, we’ll see how long they hold out. (Jay Greene / The Washington Post)

Google, Facebook, and Twitter are complying with an EU request to provide monthly reports on how each company is combatting fake news about COVID-19 on its platforms. While this could help curb the spread of misinformation, the tech giants aren’t legally required to produce these reports, and there’s no guidance on exactly what the reports should contain. (James Vincent / The Verge)

Chinese state media is spreading propaganda about the Communist Party’s response to COVID-19 on social media. Their three main tactics are: sharing positive stories about the government’s pandemic response; rewriting recent coronavirus history to make it more favorable to the party; and using targeted ads to spread their preferred messages.

An enthusiastic QAnon conspiracy theorist is about to get elected to Congress. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who frequently posts about the bizarre pro-Trump theory, came in first in a Republican primary in Georgia on Tuesday. Judd Legum notes she successfully posted Facebook ads in which she brandishes a semi-automatic rifle and threatens “antifa terrorists.” The ads were later removed. (Will Sommer / Daily Beast)

Google countersued Sonos today for patent infringement. The move follows a lawsuit Sonos filed against Google in January. “While Google rarely sues other companies for patent infringement, it must assert its intellectual property rights here,” the company said. (Zoe Schiffer and Nilay Patel / The Verge)

Twitch will start automatically scanning clips of live streams for copyrighted music, following a wave of takedown requests. The company said it will automatically delete clips with copyrighted music in them but will not penalize streamers. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)

Facebook is testing a new version of search that displays information from public sources like Wikipedia on the platform. The goal is to keep users on Facebook when they’re looking for factual information they would otherwise turn to Google or Wikipedia to find. I’ve never understood why Facebook abandoned its search ambitions after investing in them heavily in 2013. Sarah Perez at TechCrunch explains the feature and some of its early limitations:

The information is gathered from publicly available data, including Wikipedia. But instead of requiring users to click out of Facebook to view the information, it’s displayed in a side panel next to the search results. This is similar to the automatically generated Knowledge Panel format Google uses for these same types of searches. […]

We’ve found the new feature can be fairly hit or miss, however.

For starters, it doesn’t always recognize a search term as a proper title. A search for “joker,” for instance displayed a Wikipedia-powered information box for the movie. But a search for “parasite” failed to do so for the Oscar-winning title that became the first non-English film to win Best Picture in 2020.

Facebook has been hiring experienced tech investors to help lead a new “multimillion-dollar” investment fund within its experimental apps team. If it’s successful, this strategy could help Facebook see some upside from the startup ecosystem during a time in which regulators likely won’t allow it to acquire other social networks. (Ina Fried and Kia Kokalitcheva / Axios)

A private Facebook group for New York City moms imploded over accusations of racism. The group shut down after silencing black members. Now new groups are forming that are explicitly anti-racist. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)

The new and improved Facebook News contains almost none of the stories that perform well on the rest of the platform. The section features lots of journalism from mainstream outlets, and seems to rely heavily on The New York Times. Good! (Laura Hazard Owen / Nieman Lab)

Jack Dorsey’s commitment to quickly giving $1 billion to charity shows it’s not as hard to give away money as billionaires often make it out to be. (Theodore Schleifer / Recode)

Change.org employees are calling on the company to donate all funds from a petition demanding accountability for the killing of George Floyd to Floyd’s family and organizers — rather than using the funds to promote the campaign itself. Employees say the organization has misled donors about where their money is going. (Russell Brandom / The Verge)

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Watch the 24 best trailers from Thursday’s PlayStation 5 launch. Look, maybe you’re not a video-game nerd like me — fine. But if you like looking at software that mostly makes people happy and and lives happily at the intersection of art and technology, I can’t imagine a better way to spend the weekend.

Everyone: Look at my Zoom background lol

Evan Spiegel: pic.twitter.com/2zLG3ALigM

what if we use our taxes for universal healthcare and free college and then we can do a gofundme for the police if an emergency comes up

sony: the PS5 is the greatest machine ever made. it will redefine what console gaming means. look at these incredible graphics. its seamless gameplay. astounding.
me: that CAT is wearing a BACKPACK pic.twitter.com/1Gh9jnDMKG

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