May 3, 2016 ยท 5 minutes

For the better part of a year I’ve been criticizing Snapchat’s silly preoccupation with becoming a mobile Vice -- aka a content network only for millennials-- versus a utility that could be used by lots of demographics and scale to a point where it could rival Facebook.

Snapchat has the only real shot at doing this in messaging: It’s the only top four messaging platform that Facebook doesn’t already own. And Facebook knows it: It has already tried overpaying for Snapchat, using Instagram to ape Snapchat, and creating new Snapchat competitors from the ground up multiple times. Like a clone army, Facebook will just keep attacking Snapchat.

But Facebook’s best hope may be the fact that Evan Spiegel has spent the company’s most pivotal years-- that period where it has endless access to capital, hiring potential, and hype and yet none of the pressure to perform in terms of revenues or earnings-- being the millennial concierge to old media.

There are two problems with this strategy: The first is it wastes time and effort that should be focused squarely on growing (and monetizing) Snapchat as a utility. The second is that it alienates users who aren’t millennials, sending a strong message that Snapchat simply isn’t for them.

Contrast that to Facebook’s strategy its entire young life. Sure it started as a college app. And then spent its pre-IPO life trying to steadily convince the world why it was more than just that.

Snapchat’s bizarre hero-worship of old media and celebrities is reminiscent of Twitter. And it’s satisfaction with only being dominant among US millennials is reminiscent of Pinterest’s popularity with women. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be the next Facebook.

And there are signs that Snapchat is starting to get this too. For one thing: Let’s look at demographics. Already one in five millennials is on Snapchat. Focusing solely on that group is going to slow growth eventually. Take it from Twitter: You don’t want that to play out once you’ve gone public.

Also, millennials age. Facebook avoided this fate two ways: It got to such massive volume and size on its core platform that the declining demographics once it lost teens didn’t matter, and it aggressively acquired and grew new properties to appeal to teens. Snapchat won’t be able to do the latter if it doesn’t do the former.

Also: Name one other Web or media property that used to be hot with teens and stayed that way. We’re called the “Rolling Stone” and “MTV” generation even though we’re in our 40s for a reason. Even if properties could stay “cool” with teens forever, they wouldn’t be worth close to what Facebook is as a Web utility. Forget Facebook’s valuation. They aren’t even close to Snapchat’s current valuation of $16 billion.

Why Snapchat hasn’t gotten this yet is beyond me. I’ve had conversations with their investors about it for the better part of a year and they’ve agreed Stories-- not Discover-- is the future of the company. Here’s a sign it may be sinking in: Spiegel recently described Snapchat as a “camera company” more than anything else. Why is that such a good sign? Because a camera is a fucking utility, not a bullshit Wall-Street-journal-trying-to-be-hip-in-a-10-second-video point of view.

From TechCrunch’s write up of a recent talk Spiegel gave:

The runaway success of Stories, Snapchat’s video and photo watching tool, even caught Spiegel by surprise. “Stories blew us away,” he said. “What was envisioned at the time as an ephemeral profile — this is who I am right now — has become a lot more… To watch the evolution of Stories into more of a broadcasting platform [and] away from just a profile-based concept where it started is very exciting.”

While Snapchat Stories may be the feature that brings the company the revenue model it needs to validate its $16 billion valuation, and while the ephemeral messaging feature may be what initially attracted the hordes of millennials sending digital ephemera to each other billions of times a day, Spiegel says that the camera itself remains Snapchat’s unifying feature.

Snapchat opens to the camera, Spiegel said. Chat is available to the left of the camera, and Stories is available to the right of the camera. That not only differentiates it from other social media products, but allows Snapchat to straddle the line between the defining features of several of them.

“The beautiful thing is it sort of sits in the middle, but more importantly it opens to the camera,” Spiegel said. “The thing that feeds a social network is content… Similarly with communication… So in our view, when you take a snap and you choose this path between talking to your friends or adding it to your Story we end up with this harmony where both of these businesses feed themselves. I don’t think it’s one or the other.” 

YES. Finally. The reason Snapchat has created something Facebook simply can’t is that simple camera first, effortless, feed me content mobile UI. Not clicking and swiping until you find a place where Buzzfeed can teach you how to microwave a brownie in a mug.

In fact, note that Discover or third party content isn’t mentioned once in Spiegel’s description.

The key here-- as opposed to a talk Spiegel gave just a few months ago where he said the goal of the company was “[accommodating] publishers” -- is the focus on technology that enables users to create the content. Not shoving old media repurposed crap at its young audience.

It’s like someone finally sat Spiegel down and explained how important tagging and photos were to Facebook becoming Facebook, and -- yunno-- the history of the consumer Internet.