Technology

Evan Spiegel on maps, Minis, and the future of Snapchat

On Thursday Snap held its second-ever partner summit as a virtual event, announcing a new suite of products and developer tools for Snapchat. The inaugural event was one of the more memorable tech productions I’ve been to — a high-energy keynote from CEO Evan Spiegel in front of giant vertical screens on a converted Hollywood sound stage, at which he introduced the company’s games platform. And so I was disappointed when, along with every other big gathering planned for this year, the event was scaled down to a video chat.

But if the scale of the event was much smaller, the announcements arguably signaled even more ambition. Snap has had a good year, buoyed — like every other social app — by a lockdown that kept people indoors for months on end, glued to their phones. The company says more use Snapchat every day than Twitter and TikTok combined. And on Thursday it introduced a product called Minis, which aim to expand Snapchat’s capabilities into e-commerce, meditation, studying, and anything else third-party developers can dream up.

Snap today announced Minis, a suite of miniature applications made by third-party developers that run inside of Snapchat. Minis are built using HTML and enable a range of experiences from meditating alone to buying movie tickets with friends. Minis, which are integrated into the chat window on Snapchat, were one of several new features announced today at Snap’s virtual Partner Summit.

The existence of Minis was first reported last month by The Information, which likened them to the mini programs that have turned WeChat into one of the most popular apps in China. The programs — which let users buy food, pay their bills, and complete other tasks — generated $113 billion for WeChat last year, up 160 percent from the year prior, The Information reported. The company takes a cut of purchases made through the app.

Minis were the big headline to come out of the event, but they were preceded by several other noteworthy features: the app’s first navigation bar; a revamped Snap Map that now includes local businesses; and an editorially curated news platform called Happening Now.

Ahead of the event, I talked with Spiegel about the company’s ambitions, whether the pandemic had shifted its roadmap, and whether the Snap Map will eventually add turn-by-turn directions. (Don’t hold your breath.) I also asked a him to talk about his recent blog post asserting Snap’s First Amendment rights to amplify speech as it sees fit, and his response is worth reading.

Highlights from our interview follow, edited lightly for clarity.

Casey Newton: Some people have suggested that Minis could be to Snapchat what miniature programs have been for WeChat. Is that the right way of thinking about them?

Evan Spiegel: One of the things that’s so unique about minis is that they provide these shared experiences with friends. Today, I think the app experience on people’s phones tends to be very siloed. In order to do anything with friends, it just takes a lot of work. So I think one of the cool things about Minis is it takes these little things that are actually frustrating, and take a lot of time to do and are pretty siloed, and just makes it easier to do and more fun to do with your friends.

Maybe the easiest example is just movie tickets. It’s such a hassle — you text your friend, do you want to go to the movies? What do you want to see? You both go back and forth and like send links, or screenshots, and then try to find a time, and try to find a seat. Why is it so hard? And to be able to do that together in a couple taps in a Mini, it just feels really different. And so I think like that’s where they can really provide value, by removing a lot of friction.

So you know, we’re just trying to learn. But I think what’s so cool is we built this really sophisticated engine for gaming. Actually, that was the much harder problem. And the easier problem is taking that really sophisticated engine and then applying it to other experiences, like buying movie tickets,

Five years in the future, do you see a day where people are constantly opening up Snapchat to transact business as they go around town?

You know, maybe. But I actually think it has the ability to power more e-commerce. I’d think more about a shared shopping experience, or something that’s actually online.

Let’s say you’re getting ready with your friends, or your school dance is two weeks from now — you can actually shop together with your friends, which I think could be a really fun experience.

You’re also turning the camera into a device that better understands the world around you, with these new features that identify plants and trees and dogs. In past we’ve talked about the camera as a tool for capturing the world and being creative. Where does this other piece fit in?

It’s definitely something we’ve been excited about working on, but it’s actually hard! Which is why it’s taken us a while to start building this foundation. Even something just as simple and fun as recommending the right lenses for you when you’re at the beach, and I think that’s a really compelling use case — [but] even something that’s simple, that requires really understanding the environment around you and then matching the right AR experience. So a lot of it was just building a basic foundation and understanding, and now hopefully we’ll be able to build a lot more on top of that. In the next couple years, I really think we can accelerate the different ways we can help people.

Some people may not realize that their Snapchat camera can identify plants or dogs. It reminds me of the issue you have with Alexa, or Siri, which is that all the most powerful features are invisible. How do you think about that problem?

I totally agree with you. You know, discoverability, at least for us, is always the problem we actually solve last. One of the things we want to do is make sure that the technology works really well and provides a great experience for power users, who basically help us learn how to make it better. And then we make it more discoverable.

So actually, at [the partner summit], we’re making premium content and the map more discoverable — but that’s after many years of working on those products. So the discoverability piece, I agree with you, is something that we’ll have to improve. But we want to make sure that core experience is awesome.

You mentioned making the Snap Map more prominent. Adding local businesses feels like a significant step. But I’m guessing you don’t see yourself eventually adding turn-by-turn directions. So how do you want it to evolve?

I guess never say never, but I don’t see [directions] being our priority.

When we look at building products we’re always trying to build something that’s 10 times better than the next best alternative. I think it would be really hard to be 10x better than Google at turn-by-turn. It’s definitely not a priority of ours.

I think where we do see a real opportunity is in personalizing the map, and making it reflect the world the way that you see it. I understand why driving directions and roads and things like that need to be standardized for everybody, and everyone needs to have the same map. But for us, the way that we see the map opportunity is really about creating a map that reflects who you are — who your friends are, what they’re doing, and what the world looks like right now, because you can see people’s snaps.

And now with businesses, I think what’s going to be so cool is that no matter where you are in the world, you can see the places that are popular with Snapchatters. You can see when they’re popular. And I think we’re going to do a much better job over time, highlighting and surfacing you know the right businesses for you based on who you are, so that I think is just a big opportunity. I frankly I feel like we waited too long to add businesses to the map. But you know we’re really excited about what this means going forward and I think they’ll be great to build on.

So like a lot of social apps, Snap saw a surge in usage in the last quarter as people were trapped indoors. Other companies changed up their product roadmaps or accelerated certain features to reflect those new behaviors. Has Snap done any of that?

This has not frankly, been a time to rethink the roadmap. As we look at developing products, we really think over a pretty extended period of time. And so, in our view, while certain behavior patterns have definitely been accelerated, and maybe permanently, structurally changed, like e-commerce — that actually further accelerates the current roadmap that we have, and maybe gets us to some places faster than we thought we’d get there.

But it doesn’t change the world that we’re imagining. So we definitely view COVID as a temporary event — even though some behaviors may change, I think building for everyone staying at home probably doesn’t reflect the way that humans really like to interact with one another.

Finally, the Trump campaign accused you of illegal election interference because you’re not promoting the president’s account any more. Any thoughts?

I think that, very simply, Snapchat exercised its First Amendment rights to choose what it does as a platform. We’re well within our rights to choose what we want to promote. And in this case, we didn’t think it’s appropriate to promote violence to the young people that use our service. So we did what we think was the right thing to do.

I think the interesting thing is that we do seem to be in the middle of a very odd misunderstanding of the First Amendment, which is designed to protect individuals and businesses from the government. Companies can all decide whatever they want to put on their platforms. They’re well within their rights to do that as private businesses.