To celebrate 4/20, Snapchat released a face-swapping filter that allowed users to replace their own face with the likeness of Bob Marley. Quickly, the media picked up on the feedback to the Snapchat filter, and headlines including words like "racist," "blackface," "cultural appropriation" and "digital blackface" quickly turned the story into trending news.
After seeing so many headlines that were desperate to cry foul, it's sometimes hard for me to believe many content farms are serious about social issues. Important cultural and racial discussions turn into internet fodder as the meaning of important social terms get diluted. In the avalanche of stories about the Snapchat filter, any condemnation was meant to be interpreted in a context without consequences.
Snapchat's Bob Marley filter was a calculated risk to bring another realm of awareness to the social platform, inspiring a predictable wave of media coverage. Snapchat was protected by the approval of the Bob Marley estate, issuing a statement in response to the backlash, "The lens we launched today was created in partnership with the Bob Marley Estate, and gives people a new way to share their appreciation for Bob Marley and his music. Millions of Snapchatters have enjoyed Bob Marley's music, and we respect his life and achievements."
For many who were clueless before, Snapchat is now 'that thing you can swap faces on'
There was therefore no risk to releasing the validated tribute to the musical legend. Instead, Snapchat played the media as a means to introduce itself to another wave of users who might still be consuming content on other platforms. Join Snapchat instead, and make your own contemporary content with fun, innovative Snapchat filters. Every popular platform needs to be reduced into an easily-explainable phenomenon. For many who were clueless before, Snapchat is now 'that thing you can swap faces on.' Turn your face into a dog, a rainbow spitting cartoon, or Bob Marley.
Snapchat is clearly relevant enough to kickstart a media cycle, but when you are a unicorn that might be eyeing an IPO, the main goal is to grow at all costs, even if it means executing complex media stunts that wade into the hot waters of racist accusations. Snapchat is the most important social network amongst teens, and could find itself as a daily commodity platform that will age with their user base. But there are still so many people in the world to convert into users, no matter which unicorn you are.
Snapchat played the current media as more of a machine as a gateway to mass appeal. The backlash cycle after Snapchat's Bob Marley filter was predictable because the collective voice of every content farm already knew the angle. They already know the buzzwords that will capture the attention of their audience. This was a free advertorial for Snapchat in the same way that Amazon's Drone Delivery was—only Snapchat's media moment was fueled from a negative realm of the media cycle. But hey, at least people got to see its most ambitious face swapping filter yet.
The depressing thing about trending stories around social justice and racial awareness is the blurred line between the media mission of 'raising awareness' and disingenuously covering stories for the sake of trend baiting. At times, the content farm sludge that is produced makes me feel like serious terms are reduced to clickbaiting buzzwords for demographics of socially tolerant Millennials. It's a negative byproduct of a tolerant audience, but embedding tweets of random people who are passively tweeting judgments doesn't equate to a genuine backlash or a responsible response to a cultural event. Passionate people turn to responsible reporting, whereas many headlines are just sounding boards to further divide people. This is a scenario where sharable content divides and fuels hatred.
Snapchat is arguably the most engaging social platform, and in many ways, the undefinable nature of 'what it is' makes it incredibly valuable. As long as Snapchat can continue to get more users and effectively monetize their engagement, what it is right now might not be very important. We are in the middle of Facebook's identity shift, and media publishers are scrambling to move their brands into the distributed content era. Instead of merely existing on a website where social platforms and messengers serve as a source of traffic, content now exists on platforms like Snapchat.
Snapchat is seen as the solution for 'what's next' to solve the overlap between social, content, and messaging, creating a new medium for people addicted to vertically formatted video. In March of 2016, Snapchat equaled Facebook with 8 million video views per month. With only 200 million users compared to Facebook's 1.59 billion, think about the potential for monetization once the next wave of Snapchatters join their face-swapping friends.
I'm sure this won't be the last time Snapchat is in the news with IPO hype rumors bubbling on tech content farms. Now is the time for it to sell, as our social networking and media providers see it as the promise of what's next before having to actually figure out how to make money. Imagine the buzz if Snapchat doubled in size, leapfrogging the floundering Twitter and catching Facebook-owned Instagram.
As the vagueness between the social platform, the content provider and the messaging system continues to blur, no one can argue with sheer numbers of users and video views. In the quest to monetize the human's unnatural desire to stare at a screen, Snapchat's Bob Marley face-swapping was a well-played move by the rising company. But do you know what's cooler than swapping faces with Bob Marley? Swapping places with Facebook, especially its user base.
Life on the Content Farm is a weekly column about internet media written by the last relevant blogger.