In this week’s TV column, Aaron Yap looks at how social media platform Snapchat threatens to usurp traditional viewing habits.
As much as it pains me to admit it, I’m a more devoted viewer of Snapchat than of any TV channel out there. Worse, Snapchat often acts as a secondary screen even when I am watching regular TV. Yes, I’m one short step away from becoming that asshole who uses their smart phone in a movie theatre.
The context may be different – it’s in the privacy of your own living room, so you’re not really hurting anyone – but the underlying principle remains the same: you’re not giving your undivided attention to the thing that you’re actually supposed to be watching.
So what is Snapchat, exactly? Launched in 2011, it’s a mobile app which has become a massive hit among millennials. It has lots of familiar photo, video, text messaging and follower functionality, but with one big difference: ephemerality. When you send a snap to a friend, you set a viewing time limit of up to 10 seconds. Once they view it, it’s gone forever. Though there are sneaky workarounds, such as screenshotting and third party apps, this disappearing-into-the-ether feature defines the app (and makes it a stealthy sexting tool for those who like exchanging nudie pics).
However, it isn’t Snapchat’s pic messaging tools which emulate TV, but its “Stories” and “Discover” features. Instead of sending a snap or video to a specific follower, Stories lets you send your snaps to a centralised area where all your followers can watch them within a 24-hour viewing window. Because you can add as many snaps into Stories as you’d like, they begin stacking up, forming a narrative of sorts. It’s an intimate, sometimes creepily voyeuristic gateway into the lives of whoever you choose to follow.
Watching Snapchat Stories generally means watching a collection of mundane little moments, like someone watching TV (meta), driving (very dangerous; not recommended), on a fancy holiday (will make you jealous), or fooling around with Snapchat’s popular Lens feature. Sometimes you might even see some WTF goodness, like this pigeon I stumbled across in the weekend:
Snapchat Stories really start making sense when you follow celebrities. Much like Twitter, the cool thing about celebs on Snapchat is that it strips out the middleman. The only wall separating celeb and fan (or stalker) is the app. So you get to see Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn filming his face listening to music, Allison Williams (Girls) taking her dog Moxie for a walk, Chloe Bennett (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) hamming it up with the bee voice-changer lens. Just a second ago I saw Mr. Robot’s Stephanie Corneliussen’s cat lick her face. What a satisfying hit of a famous person… doing absolutely nothing.
Basically, Snapchat Stories is like curating your own palm-sized E! Channel, packed with the most addictive, fucking banal shit ever.
Snapchat’s Discover feature is a little different. It’s the company’s play at monetising their app, which currently boasts a staggering daily reach of 10+ billion video views. While it offers some meatier content, like current affairs pieces from the likes of CNN, the snaps mostly consists of clickbait with titles like “Incredible cute pics of baby sloths” (National Geographic), “The Worst Summer Jobs” (Vice), and “27 Totally Random Daniel Radcliffe Facts” (People). I rarely use it, since it’s basically the same content you could find anywhere else on the web and lacks the intimacy that makes Stories so compelling.
With some truly impressive engagement numbers – its daily active usership grew 50% in the past year – Snapchat have begun luring in advertisers. At this year’s Cannes Lions, the advertising industry’s biggest global event, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel argued that the app is replacing TV for millennials. It’s a huge claim – one that their original programming struggles to live up to.
Literally Can’t Even, Snapchat’s first foray into scripted content, premiered to poor reviews and weak viewership last year, coming off like a bad Broad City clone that no one asked for. Subsequently, the company canned their Snap Channel in-house production team, proving that it’s no easy task to translate the billion video views gained from people watching each other’s Snap videos into an audience for a scripted show.
Still, glimmers of possibilities are there. Earlier this year Snapchat launched a CNN-style politics news show called Good Luck America, and just recently they’ve reportedly been in discussions with major studios to get premium programming onto their platform.
I find Snapchat’s live event coverage, where snappers contribute to one event story – like say, music festival Splendour in the Grass – an appealing way of presenting a collectively authored narrative. Editorial influence aside (gotta keep those dick pics out of a Ramadan story) the live event stuff offers the we’re-in-this-together positivity of a Twitter hashtag,minus the trolling side effects.
Maybe the most promising example of what original content on Snapchat could look like is Sickhouse. It’s touted as the “first ever Snapchat movie”, but given that the story was rolled out in 10-second chunks over five days between April 29 and May 3, it’s more akin to a serialised television broadcast. An astounding one hundred million viewers watched as social media stars Andrea Russett and Sean O’Donnell took them on a journey they believed to be real: a trek into the woods of California in search of a haunted cabin. If you’re thinking it sounds suspiciously like a certain found-footage horror flick, the characters know this too; “Have you ever seen The Blair Witch Project?” one of them asks, a few days deep into their inevitably ill-fated camping excursion.
When Sickhouse first came to my attention via an awful trailer, I expected it to be insufferable amateur garbage thrown together by teenagers looking for some attention. But having seen it now in its full “movie form” on Vimeo, and done a little bit of background reading into its production, I’ve been really impressed by the meticulous care that went into Sickhouse‘s creation.
Produced by Indigenous Media, a digital studio which specialises in creating content for new platforms, Sickhouse looks lo-fi – as one would expect shooting through Snapchat’s camera. Its effectiveness lies not in its technical prowess, but in its considered, detailed execution. The off-the-cuff quality of the movie is the result of a part-improvised collaboration between the actors and director Hannah MacPherson. They worked in tandem to shape a realistic portrait of millennial behaviour. It’s as much about exploiting the viral power of Russett’s extremely large fan base (her followers who tuned in were genuinely scared for her safety), as it is drawing the right kind of doodles on Snapchat’s interface. Sickhouse’s attention to authenticity also very much recalls Unfriended, the creepy 2015 slasher movie that unfolds entirely through the windows of social media sites and instant messaging.
Having said all that, I doubt many horror fans will rate Sickhouse, whose derivative scares are swiped wholesale from Blair Witch and others of its ilk. But the acting is naturalistic and unaffected, and I do admire some of its aesthetic subtleties. Occassionally a stray, accidental image will appear that’s surprisingly striking, and I like that the vertical framing of Snapchat flies in the face of conventional visual storytelling. Sickhouse might not be a total success, but it shows that Snapchat’s limitations and quirks can become assets in the right hands, whether they’re making scripted content or something else.
To its credit, Sickhouse finds a logical solution to the problem that plagues all found-footage fare: why the heck are the characters still filming under life-threatening conditions? As Sickhouse’s iPhone-toting Snapchatters suggest, the answer is a generation who believe everything is worthy of getting snapped. Russett, in her most eloquent – some might say, horrifying – millennial-speak, says it best in the movie: “Snapchat isn’t a documentary, it’s just stuff”.
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