Evan Spiegel wants the world to know something: His company, Snap, doesn’t admire Facebook, doesn’t want to be like Facebook, and believes that Snap’s approach to its users and their data is better for the world. Appearing onstage at the Code Conference in Palos Verdes, California, Tuesday night, Spiegel said that Facebook may have changed its products and mission but “fundamentally they will have a hard time changing the DNA of the company.” That DNA, Spiegel said, “is about having people compete online for attention.”
It made for great theater, and Spiegel won applause from the well-heeled crowd of tech and media elites. But the reason Spiegel was on stage in the first place was because it appears Snap’s business will never look anything like Facebook’s. Sure, Facebook is facing withering criticism for how it has handled a slew of problems, from protecting users’ data to Russian bots to hate speech. But as a business it mints money. Snap’s does not yet, and Spiegel has been under enormous scrutiny from investors and employees for the way he is running the place.
Facebook’s Instagram is projected to surpass one billion users this year, while Snapchat claims around 191 million daily users, according to its most recent earnings report. Its growth has slowed. While Snapchat has managed to capture a rabid audience of younger users who love its ephemeral messaging—and its impressive augmented-reality filters—some of the company’s recent moves have shaken investors. Its stock price has been slashed in half since February, when it redesigned the app.
Snap is also facing scrutiny around its culture and commitment to diversity, after a newly published memo from a former Snap employee highlighted a “pervasive sexist vibe.” The memo described a toxic macho culture, and it included complaints about a company party that featured scantily clad women and a separate complaint about a senior vice president of engineering who allegedly made inappropriate comments.
Spiegel said the memo was a “really good wake-up call” for the company, and that his team is constantly talking about its culture and values and how to improve. Snap may be located in “Silicon Beach,” not Silicon Valley, but its early responses to the memo resembled those of its northern neighbors facing similar accusations.
Five years ago, people wondered whether Snapchat could be the new Facebook, so much so that Facebook reportedly tried to buy Snapchat for $3 billion. Now, Facebook seemingly waits for Spiegel to roll out new features, then copies them.
The Evan Spiegel onstage Tuesday night was a more thoughtful, poised, and undoubtedly coached CEO than the Spiegel of the past. He crafted the image of a company that communicates well internally and develops new products based not just on data but also on intuition—in a way, pushing his own image as a visionary tech iconoclast. He vouched for Snap as a better alternative to other social media sites that are “unpleasant” for users. “Fundamentally, it’s important to understand that Snapchat is not just a bunch of features,” Spiegel said. “It has an underlying philosophy that runs counter to other social media.”
When Recode’s Kara Swisher pressed Spiegel on how it feels to be copied by Facebook—the most prominent examples include “Stories” and AR filters—Spiegel initially brushed aside the question. He said it bothered his wife more than it bothers him, and that it’s flattering for designers to be copied. Then he took a swing: “We would really appreciate it if they copied our data practices, also.” Later, Spiegel said the Russians didn’t manipulate anyone on Snapchat.
It was a dunk on Facebook that Spiegel seemed unable to resist, with the lane wide open. Adding to the drama was the fact that Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mike Schroepfer were backstage, waiting their turn to be interviewed.
Within minutes, Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, fired back on Twitter that “Snapchat’s implicit promise that photos really disappear combined with poor API security has lead [sic] to serious mass leaks of revenge porn. So no, I don’t think copying Snapchat would be a smart move.” Stamos linked to a 2014 story from The Verge about Snap’s easily hackable API. (That’s ironic, given that 2014 is also the year when Cambridge Analytica is believed to have started mining user data from Facebook for the purpose of influencing the 2016 US election.)
Spiegel, near the end of his onstage appearance, grew philosophical about Snap’s position in the market. “Life is not about making money,” he declared, with the ease of someone who has a fair amount of it. It’s not about winning awards, or competitions. Businesses too quickly reduce things to numbers, he said; he wants Snap to put more weight on the things that can’t be counted.
You have to give Spiegel some credit for embracing his role as an underdog. Even if it only underscores the fact that Snap is, in fact, the underdog.