Dec 17, 2012 · 10 minutes

The tech blogosphere -- the ones who are supposed to "get" new technologies while old media does its best impression of your dad trying to program the VCR-- keeps calling Snapchat the "sexting app."

I'm sure it drives clicks, but in doing so, they're dramatically missing the point on what this company is doing, why it's growing so quickly, and why several top investors are falling all over themselves to get an early piece of the LA-based company.

This kind of thing is common with social companies. They are almost always seen as something frivolous at the outset. Facebook was long considered merely a college bulletin board that adults couldn't imagine joining and surely college kids would mature out of using. YouTube was just a place for videos of your cat. Instagram was just mobile photos that a gimmicky technology could made look old. Twitter was nothing more than telling the world what you had for lunch.

All of these were considered frivolous, over valued, over-hyped and not substantial. Until, of course, core users proved what the service actually was about, forcing snobby late adopters to sit up, take notice and pretend they'd been on the bandwagon all along.

I'm not prognosticating that Snapchat will wind up in the rarefied camp of Twitter, Facebook, or even Instagram. Making bold ideas into actual companies requires luck and dogged execution, and right now Snapchat is a company of just five people operating out of co-founder Evan Spiegel's dad's house. That should change rapidly: It's raised a half a million dollar seed round from Lightspeed already, and rumors and common sense both say they are in the middle of raising a more substantial series A.

But what is driving Snapchat's surging usage represents something new and something profound. And when there's a new and profound change in the nature of technology and communciation-- there's usually a big business there for someone.

The key is in the stat that is making so many VCs want to invest: Already a stunning 50 million snaps are being taken a day, which compares impressively to the 300 million photos uploaded per day to the gargantuan 1 billion person Facebook.

It takes a-- let's call it-- special view of the world to think those are mostly naked photos being sent to one another. For one thing, 80% of Snapchat's images are sent during the day, and you have to send a message immediately after you take it. At 50 million photos sent per day, that'd be an awful lot of people perving out in class and at work. At a minimum, students would all be waiting a lot longer to use the bathroom.

But beyond that, anyone who can only see a sexual use for "self destructing photos" is either out of touch with where the mobile Web is taking us or suffers from a serious lack of imagination.

This story isn't about a single company-- no matter how quickly it's growing. It's about how mobile is transforming the nature of what a photograph is. One one hand, Snapchat is dramatically different than Memoto's lifelogging camera, but at their core both hint at the same thing: The pace and ease of snapping photographs on connected portable devices is making the collective nature of these photographs more substantial while it makes each single photo essentially disposable.

In the case of Memoto a tiny camera captures every thirty seconds of your life automatically. As our own Hamish McKenzie wrote it holds the promise to augment your memory in a new way. Imagine the ability to capture the moment you met the woman you would marry or the last time you saw a loved one before an unexpected tragic accident. But amid those few sublime captured moments, there will be a torrent of images that are all essentially a disposable sea of almost unimaginable information overload.

Snapchat is like Memoto in one way: It does something seemingly bizarre and extreme to change behavior so that you constantly snap photos. It's not automated in the case of Memoto, rather the images can be shared ten times faster than existing methods and they "self-destruct" in period of time you determine. Recipients can screenshot them if they're quick about it, and the sender will get an alert if they do. It just launched a new version Friday that includes self-destructing video.

But while seemingly different, both Memoto and Snapchat remove any remaining inhibition about capturing oneself on "film." With Memoto-- you don't think about it, because it's automatic. With Snapchat-- you have the comfort that it'll be gone. And that makes photography more than something that savors a specific memory or marks a specific occasion. It makes it a true communication medium in a way that photography technology has been inching towards for decades.

"It's restoring the immediacy to conversations because you don't have to think about what you are saying before you say it," Spiegel says. "It takes three seconds. It's way quicker than writing a text, and it says a thousand times more than what you can say in a text." That's particularly the case if we're stuck with a world of smart phones without physical keyboards.

Spiegel doesn't actually know what percentage of his users are sexting, but he assumes it's very small. An increasing use case he's seen instead is parents using it to communicate with their college-aged kids. Because the photos self-destruct, kids are far less inhibited to let their parents in on their worlds. The parents love it, because they get a sense of where their kid actually is and what they are actually doing in a way an email or even a phone call can't convey. "It's illegal to record phone calls and that's not because people are having phone sex all day," Spiegel says. "It's because it's a violation of what a conversation is. It's ephemeral. If you capture it, it loses the magic of what it is."

There's certainly a network effect challenge with any new social network. And Snapchat's young demographic can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Teens and college kids can be a fickle bunch: Just ask Formspring. And LikeALittle-- another once presumed "next Facebook" among investors--  has been very quiet and seems to have pivoted twice.

But theoretically, you can come up with more examples of when you might use Snapchat instead of sharing an image over Facebook or Twitter. For instance, I would never-- under any circumstances-- share a photo of myself just after giving birth on a traditional social network. Many women do, and I applaud them. But I am far too vain to have that sweaty, bloated mess out there in the permanent record, and somehow the moment is also too personal to be captured and spread in such an impersonal way.

But I might share a photo as a rapid birth announcement if I knew it would self destruct. My loved ones and family could hit a screen capture and save it, but for everyone else, they'd see it and know the baby was here, smile, and then the sweaty, bloated mess would disappear from their phones forever. The impact in the context of announcing the birth would be profound, without the lasting "Wow, that was just not a good look for me" hangover. In other words, the photo is a means to communicate, not to capture.

There's something beautifully noncommittal about Snapchat that flies in the face of what we've always known photography to represent.

Technology has long been pushing us towards this "collective is bigger than the individual" nature of photography. In the old times, a Daguerreotype was the first commercially viable photograph, and it was a luxury. It was not only rare, complex, and expensive, but required ten minutes to capture. Few families had them, and they were treasured heirlooms as a result. Subsequent forms of photography like Tintypes were comparatively cheap and easy, but still required you go somewhere like a fair to have them taken. Not exactly convenient.

As each wave of camera technology has made photos cheaper and more ubiquitous, the value of each photo in and of itself has declined, while photography as a medium has only become more powerful in compressing space and time to feel closeness. Sometimes that closeness is with family, sometimes it's closeness to a major story happening halfway around the world.

Think of your photography collection now: How many individual photos are precious enough to even print out and lay into a scrapbook or frame and hang on the wall the way your parents might have? In my house the most recent printed and framed photos we have are of our wedding, some eight years ago. Everything that's happened to us since-- buying a house, starting our family, starting my company, various holidays and occassions-- have been captured in far greater volume, but it's not pasted in books or hanging on the walls. Instead, I have a photo album in my pocket. Unlike a paper version on a shelf, that photo album is constantly changing, morphing, and updating. It's too large and too dynamic to be printed on paper and frozen in place with waxy black corners.

For younger generations, this shift is likely to be even more profound. The media has spent years obsessing about the generation that's grown up on the Internet-- their flippant attitude towards privacy, their Google and Wikipedia-enabled desire for instant information gratification, and of course the completely overstated lamenting about gnat-like attention spans and grammatical skills of serial texters.

But what of the generation just below that-- the one growing up with the Internet in their pockets? It's a question we haven't yet had time to obsess about, but it strikes me that a different relationship with photography will be one of the key hallmarks. "It makes complete sense that my generation would be the early adopter of something like this, but from what we've seen it's relatable for anyone," Spiegel says.

After all, dramatically decreased friction to share a digital image is one of the biggest changes mobile has made. This shift in part allowed Instagram to become a $1 billion company, while Flickr sold for a mere $30 million. And, as we've written, it's had a long tail of ramifications on everything from mobile commerce companies like Poshmark and review sites like Livestar. Even just pre-iPhones you needed a cable to get photos on the Web. A cable! It seems so hopelessly antiquated now that it's a wonder Flickr took off as much as it did back in 2006.

It's not a surprise that YouTube thrived in part because Web cams were installed in laptops, eliminating the cable. And of course, the switchblade-like USB hookup was a big selling point of the FlipCam as well. Cameras in smart phones took that to a new level of convenience, because they go everywhere with you and you can manipulate the images in sophisticated ways.

But there's another thing that Snapchat is a reaction against. It's not quite as profound as turning what used to be a cherished memory into a quick disposable hello, but it's an interesting reaction to how manufactured social media profiles have become.

It's been beat into everyone's head by now that putting a photo on Facebook or writing an errant Tweet will linger around forever and can come back to haunt you. As Facebook has gone from something you and your college friends use to something the world, your parents and potential employers can see, profiles have gotten more manufactured. Social media is far more a projection of the you you'd like to be than it is your real self. To some, like Spiegel, it's lost the element of fun.

Other sites have tried to get around this by allowing others to capture the real you. There was a horrible site called Unvarnished (and then that sought to out LinkedIn by allowing anonymous people to leave more "honest" reviews of you. There was no way for you to opt out of it or control your own page. It failed, in part, because a lot of people found it distasteful. It held all the potential of an abhorrent damp, moldy place where trolls and defamation could sprout up like mold.

Snapchat gets at this another more fun way by giving the user more control. The co-founders hope by lowering the committal value of sharing a photo, a more real you emerges out of the fleeting composite.

[Image credit.]