Snapchat is no longer Snapchat, the creator of an app used by tens of millions. It has been reborn as Snap Inc., the maker of Spectacles. A pair of colorful sunglasses with a camera at the corner, it shoots 10-second video with a circular 115-degree field of view, which is meant to mimic the eyes. The clips are sent to the app, ready to be snapped to friends and family.
This is, even to the most cynical observer, a surprising business move. Snapchat started out as an app known primarily for sexting, then for taking up hours in an average teen’s day, and most recently for its inventive, weird filters and celebrity feuds. But while a software company moving into hardware isn’t unprecedented—Facebook is now making virtual reality headsets, and who can forget Google Glass?—Snap’s move is also less unexpected when you consider that the company’s overarching goal is to occupy attention and become a key way to communicate. The Snapchat app, for example, has blended both messaging and news in the same container, with users flipping back and forth between both. In essence, Snap hopes to replace both texting and TV with a weird hybrid of the two.
Spectacles alone is unlikely to achieve that ambitious aim. What a product like Spectacles might do, however, is help set the stage for a world in which images and video—already dominant online—are the default mode of communication, period. With a pair of glasses that records video from a user’s perspective, Snap is hoping to create a new cultural form—a deeply social form of photography and video that will form a buzzing, connective background for our lives.
Whenever one of the big tech companies does something radical, it often reveals something about its ambitions. Facebook is always trying to install itself as the default for existing behaviors, hoping to replace texting with their Messenger app or news websites with their news feed. Snap’s plans for Spectacles are more experimental and weird, but just as far-reaching in their ultimate goal. A pair of camera-glasses aimed at teens isn’t itself meant to meant to become the next iPhone—partly because in the short term the glasses can’t have the same broad appeal as a smartphone that does hundreds of things, and partly because, even at $130, they’re a bit cheap and plasticky. In the Wall Street Journal piece that broke the news about Spectacles, Spiegel referred to the glasses as “a toy.”
It would be a mistake, however, to think toy means unserious. “[T]he future of technology,” mobile analyst Benedict Evans is fond of saying, “has always looked like a pretty toy to people comfortable with the past.” Snapchat’s greatest strength is that its same toy-like nature encourages playfulness and a lack of careful curation. Snapchat videos are often rough and unorchestrated, an effect of the fact that they self-delete after 24 hours. That focus on nowness is also at the heart of Spectacles. As Spiegel argues of a test of Spectacles on a trip to Big Sur, “It’s one thing to see images of an experience you had, but it’s another thing to have an experience of the experience. It was the closest I’d ever come to feeling like I was there again.”
There’s an alluring immediacy to this. It’s not hard to imagine using Spectacles to send short clips of a party to a sick friend who had to stay home, or picturesque views from a vacation to friends who are stuck at work. These kinds of moments are what digital does best: to produce a kind of proxy or cyborg self that you can beam into other lives. Snapchat the app is already good at that, and Spectacles first-person view promises only to heighten it.
The aim seems less to turn Snap into a new hardware behemoth than to instill, in both American and global culture, the Snap mentality of that constant social connective tissue. A pair of Spectacles and a smartphone, Spiegel argues, let you “share your experience of the world while also seeing everyone else’s experience of the world, everywhere, all the time.”
Just as the book and television changed how we think and relate to the world, so too does the vision of the persistent connectivity of social photography. Each major shift in media since the invention of writing has produced an internalization of that mode. Just writing gave mankind an urge to both document history and diarize our thoughts; a camera on one’s brow beckons a kind of persistent documentary eye, making one forever ready to find something “Snappable.” The sheer satisfaction that comes from a visual record of moments also can induce a compulsion to get that same neurochemical hit of attention and affirmation again. It’s not an inherently negative thing—the eye of others is always with us, psychologically, even when we’re offline—but there is perhaps an intensification of that feeling that comes with the further technologization of that phenomenon.
Of course, economic concerns drive the invention of new tech products: Snap wants to profit from Spectacles. Spiegel’s circuitous language of “an experience of an experience” is not just about enjoying a fun moment again, but how one experiences that memory—in what form, in whose app, under what conditions. That is: the aesthetics and interface of the app itself are part and parcel of the remembering, and as we already know from Snapchat, its capacity to hold attention makes it an ideal place for advertisers looking for eyeballs in a fragmented world. This being the twenty-first century, a new cultural form—the Twitter feed, the cloud photo album, or the Facebook status update—is also a venue for ads, a place to both connect with others and connect with brands.
Spectacles thus herald future in which the image not only becomes the default mode of social communication, but that who controls that image—from production to experience, from which camera to which app are used to send and view it—has a significant impact on both messaging and society at large. Though the social aspects of Spectacles are compelling, there is also a more worrying side: the constant self-surveillance, and in what form all those images will be put to use.
Consider: On Monday night, just a couple of days after the announcement of Spectacles, the first of the American presidential debates took place. Snapchat often creates geofilters for specific places or events that reflect something about them, and for the debate it released one by the Trump campaign. It was the first nationwide political filter, and it allowed users to take a selfie with the caption “Debate Day: Donald J. Trump vs. Crooked Hillary.” It’s not that Snapchat was unique in being a platform used to disseminate Trump’s rhetoric; all media does it, and no-one was forced to use the filter to send snaps to their friends. Rather, it was that Snapchat’s desire to use filters as a revenue stream was just one more way for Trump to spread his own brash brand of politicking. Snapchat’s users were thus transformed into more than simply people chatting. When someone else controls the way we communicate, sending one kind of message can often lead to sending quite another.