Nobody trusts Facebook. Twitter is a hot mess. Can Evan Spiegel keep Snapchat from disappearing?
On the second floor of the new headquarters of Snap Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif., is a room dedicated to helping employees open up. It’s round and lined with potted plants. “Speak from the heart,” reads a framed sign on the wall. “Listen from the heart.” Employees show up in groups of about a dozen, sit cross-legged on black cushions, and take turns with the “talking piece,” a heart-shaped purple geode that gives the bearer the right to confidentially share deep thoughts.
This is the inner sanctum for what Snap calls “Council,” a sort of New Age corporate retreat that uses a technique Chief Executive Officer Evan Spiegel learned in childhood. It was also where I found myself on a Friday morning in July. Council meetings, I’d been told by the company’s communications chief, are “sacred.” They’re also a real-life example of what Spiegel wants people to do with his smartphone app, Snapchat: share intimately, without fear of judgment from the outside world.
As an app, at least, it’s a compelling idea. Snapchat’s disappearing posts, Stories, as they’re known, are wildly popular with teenagers, especially in the U.S.—so popular that Facebook Inc. has made the concept a core part of its own services, most notably Instagram. Unfortunately, Snap is having trouble capitalizing on the opportunity.
This should be Spiegel’s moment. Facebook is in the middle of a series of privacy-related scandals. Twitter and YouTube, Snapchat’s other big competitors, have seemed overrun by some combination of Russian bots, ISIS recruiters, and/or conspiracy theorists. In this context, Snapchat would appear to be well-positioned as an alternative. There’s no fake news, and the company’s emphasis on disappearing content means it stores much less data than its competitors do.
And yet, daily usage has started to decline. Late last year, Spiegel redesigned Snapchat to get people to spend more time on it. Users hated it. In early August, Snap reported that its audience had fallen from 191 million daily users in the first quarter to 188 million in the second. That’s alarming because Facebook, which is more than seven times bigger, is still growing. Instagram Stories, essentially a copy of Snapchat, has more than 400 million daily users.
Investors have come to see Snap as a smaller, unprofitable Facebook rather than a new idea that should be judged on its own merits. Spiegel says these problems have been caused in part by lack of communication, which has created confusion inside and outside the company. “If you don’t share who you are with people, you can’t be upset when they have misperceptions,” he says.
That’s why Spiegel, 28, agreed for the first time to let an outsider into Council. He learned about the concept while attending Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences, a prep school in Santa Monica. Today, Snap has six full-time and eight part-time Council facilitators among its 3,000 employees. They presided over 785 sessions during the first half of 2018. All employees do Council on their first day of work; Snap’s directors do it before quarterly board meetings.
The meeting I attended started with an employee lighting a candle in the center of the circle to dedicate the session to a cause, and then proceeded with a series of free- association prompts. A moderator asked us to tell a story about our names or a memory related to summer. Outside the round room, morale at Snap has been low recently. Inside it, employees were connecting with each other, at times emotionally, about their childhoods, hopes, and fears.
Council etiquette prohibits me from telling you what others shared, but during one of my turns with the geode, I told the group an embarrassing childhood story about getting sick during a family beach vacation. They also now know a legend about my great-grandmother slaughtering a rooster.
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