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Filtering Snapchat’s future

When social media company Snapchat made its initial public offering in March and closed its first day of trading on the New York Stock Exchange by jumping 44 percent, it was not surprising: The popular platform was long hailed as the “next big thing” by social media analysts.

Since then, things have not been so rosy. Snapchat stock has tumbled by nearly 45 percent amid concerns from advertisers and a stagnation of audience growth. Ohio State communication professor Joseph Bayer published some of the first research that explores people's perceptions, experiences and interactions with various social media networks, including Snapchat. He shared his thoughts on the platform’s turbulent year.

What are your thoughts on the recent decline of Snapchat?

It's been interesting to watch the waxing and the waning of the buzz. There are two potential options (for how we interpret the recent numbers): One is that it's going through the same motions as Facebook, meaning they became an IPO and probably exaggerated their potential — it’s hard not to exaggerate when you’re talking about a tech company — so you get this immediate realization that they’re not quite as good as people want them to be and there’s a drop, followed by slow growth. And they are still growing.

The other way of thinking about it is more of a Twitter route where they've found a niche. They have a population of users who don't seem to be diminishing. They're not falling off the map. A lot of tech apps do quick rises and quick falls. This wouldn't really meet that narrative. It's not 2 billion people; but they've got 200 million, and that seems like a lot. It’s all relative, and it comes down to how you define success.

From a cultural standpoint, what does Snapchat mean for us?

I think it means different things to different people. It’s been described as the “sexting” app that’s bad for teens; as the “unicorn” — the example of a technology where there was an over exaggeration of the market value.

When Snap Maps came out, people were interested in the question: What does this really offer?

It’s a different type of relationship maintenance for people who are different across the world from each other, which is actually an extension of what we’ve been seeing for decades: We’re less stuck in the physical community that we find ourselves in, and we’re more able to maintain networks across the world. It allows you to see the daily lives of people you don’t know — different cultures, different parts of world.

It’s hard to know if the connections and interactions are surface level. Are these actions really teaching us about other cultures and connecting us in the world? Or are they just furthering stereotypes about them?

In the transition to an IPO, Snapchat underwent rebranding. What does that mean?

If you go to the App Store, you’ll see that Snapchat is categorized under photo or visual now, instead of communication, which is interesting. In some ways, that goes against what the actual reality on the ground was — one of the key findings in our study was that people started to see Snapchat as a form of true communication. I think this rebranding was to emphasize what they do well, which is different, in some ways, from what Facebook and Instagram are doing.

It also situates them for the potential transition to an augmented reality platform. Today, that augmented reality experience is where you see them adding filters and, more recently, playful 3D figures that you can put on top of whatever you’re experiencing in the world. A lot of it's kind of goofy and sort of a novelty effect, but if we get to a point where that sort of augmented reality has more fundamental space in the communications system, then this branding could be meaningful. Whether it's true that we ever would really need augmented reality, I don't know.

The other part is the spatial component. They've always been built around live events, and what they’re trying to offer is a complementary perspective to your everyday life, as opposed to a kind of alternative (perspective). Augmented reality is related to this. I think they’re trying to more fully embrace Maps and build virtual elements that supplement everyday experience. Once again, we don't know how much we need these things, and whether they're just kind of cool or playful. That dimension will be interesting to watch.

And as it’s evolving, are we seeing a shift in who’s using Snapchat?

There is some evidence that Snapchat has moved beyond their initial teen demographic and into being fairly common among millennials. I haven’t seen that many people pick it up above 35 yet. These things take time.

Facebook is now at the point where the joke is that people’s grandmas and grandpas are on it.

But that came after the joke that people’s uncles and aunts are on it, and after the joke that their parents are on it … after their older brothers and sisters. It takes time to dissipate and break those assumptions that people have, which are: “If other people are using it who aren’t like me, then it’s probably not for me.”