A Growing App Lets You See It, Then You Don't

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LOS ANGELES -- The ephemeral now has value, at least for users of cellphones.

More than 60 million photos or messages are sent each day through an app called Snapchat and then, after they are viewed for a few seconds, the missives vanish. That disappearing act -- and a volume that is over a tenth of the well-established Facebook's -- has made the tiny start-up a technology hit, amassing millions of users and the backing of some of the most respected names in Silicon Valley, even though it doesn't make any money.

Because images sent through the application self-destruct seconds after they are opened, Snapchat is being embraced as an antidote to a world where nearly every feeling, celebration and life moment is captured to be shared, logged, liked, commented on, stored, searched and sold. For people who don't want to worry about unflattering pictures or embarrassing status updates coming back to haunt them, the app's appeal seems obvious. 

Many young people are growing tired of the polished profiles and the advertising come-ons of Facebook, recent surveys have shown. Moreover, young Facebook users are becoming acutely aware of the permanence of the content shared through the Web -- and its repercussions later in life. As perceptions of social media change, other start-ups, including Wickr and Vidburn and Facebook's own Poke, have recently released messaging and video products that self-destruct after a set period of time.

"It became clear how awful social media is," said one of Snapchat's founders, Evan Spiegel, 22. "There is real value in sharing moments that don't live forever."

The Snapchat service, which started two years ago but has steadily gained users, has been painted as a popular way for people, especially teenagers, to send naughty pictures. But Mr. Spiegel and his co-founder, Bobby Murphy, 24, say Snapchat is gaining traction for more than R-rated exchanges. Mr. Murphy describes the service "a digital version of passing notes in class."

"You can't build a business off sexting," said Mr. Spiegel, using the term for sending racy pictures via text message chats. "It's such a specific-use case. This is about much more than that."

Sean Haufler, 21, a computer science major at Yale who uses Snapchat, said he thought it was "dumb" when his younger sister, a high school student, first told him about it. But he began to realize that it was a much more intimate way to communicate with friends. The emotional weight of the content is heavier, he said, because messages are direct and personal. Plus, he said, "the time limits make people more comfortable."

"People are very self-aware when it comes to their Facebook profiles," he said. "All the content is very manicured and curated, the best possible portrait of yourself."

Facebook has certainly taken notice of the desire for impermanence, especially as Snapchat, according to Nielsen statistics, attracted 3.4 million users in December, more than twice as many as the month before. Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, met with the company in December, according to Snapchat's founders. Shortly after, Facebook started a similar product called Poke.

It was, if nothing else, an endorsement of the idea that the short-lived might have lasting value. In an interview in East Palo Alto, Calif., Peter Deng, Facebook's director of product management, said Poke was in line with the company's strategy of experimenting. "The demand comes from real life," he said. "People want something that is more lightweight than a message and less permanent."

Snapchat operates far from the world of Silicon Valley in a beach house in Venice Beach. Nonetheless, the start-up has caught the eye of Silicon Valley financiers.

Scott D. Cook, the founder of Intuit and a prominent entrepreneur and investor, has taken the Snapchat founders under his wing, and the start-up recently raised $13.5 million in venture financing, led by Benchmark Capital, which values the company at $60 million to $70 million even without an established revenue stream.

Mitch Lasky, who led Benchmark's cash infusion, said he first heard about the app from his 16-year-old daughter. "I started hearing Snapchat in the same context as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook," he said. "That got me curious."

His firm was aware of the company's seedier reputation with sexting, but the partners "saw the bigger picture" for the company's potential foothold in the world of social media.

"People are looking to communicate in a real way," Mr. Lasky said. "The real self, as opposed to the projected self. That was the piece that resonated the most with me." Some backers see the possibility of Snapchat making money by allowing advertisers to send coupons or fashion ideas.

Susan Etlinger, an analyst at the Altimeter Group, a tech consulting firm that studies the Internet and advises companies on how best to use them, said the sexting concerns would not necessarily derail's Snapchat's promise. "People assume that porn is the first-use case for many new kinds of Internet services, and sometimes it is, but that doesn't mean they don't end up being successful," she said.

Although Snapchat says that it cannot see or store copies of content, the service still allows nimble-fingered users to capture screenshots of photos. Mr. Murphy calls that mechanism a "feature, not a vulnerability" of the service. Each time a screenshot of a Snapchat is taken, the sender is alerted that the image has been captured. There have also been reports of loopholes and hacks that let people save videos and screenshots. "Nothing ever goes away on the Internet," Mr. Spiegel acknowledged.

Snapchat has its origins at Stanford, where Mr. Spiegel and Mr. Murphy first met as fraternity brothers. Mr. Spiegel presented a prototype of Snapchat in spring 2011 to one of his classes, but it was greeted as impractical and silly by his classmates.

Undeterred, Mr. Spiegel and Mr. Murphy shared an updated version for the iPhone with about 20 friends in September 2011. A few weeks in, they started seeing an influx of new users, paired with unusual spikes in activity, peaking between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.

It turned out the activity was centered around a high school in Orange County. Mr. Spiegel's mother had told his cousin, who was a student at the school, about the app, which then spread throughout the school.

Other high school students in Southern California picked it up, with the number of daily active users climbing from 3,000 to 30,000 in a month in early 2012. Mr. Spiegel took a leave from Stanford last June and Mr. Murphy quit his job and the pair raised a small round of financing and moved to Los Angeles to work on the application full time.

Since the overwhelming majority of Snapchat's users are age 13 to 25, the application has provoked concerns from parents. The company acknowledges that the service can be misused, but does not dwell on it. "We are not advertising ourselves as a secure platform," Mr. Spiegel said. "It's a communication platform. It's not our job to police the world or Snapchat of jerks."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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