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The Best Jokes Have No Punchline

Nishant Shukla
Jul 10, 2013 · 3 min read

Too many times I see people breathless with ecstatic eyes talking about pioneering the Next Big Thing™. Too few times do they actually follow up. The first step is not the hardest - the last is. It’s the least well-defined, and causes dreams to crumble. But if you maneuver carefully between ambiguity and indifference - that is to say, if you’re primarily preoccupied by the intrinsic rapture of coding and discovery, then the future welcomes you to institute a new frontier.

Earlier this year, two good friends and I competed in PennApps, a well-known 48-hour Hackathon in the East Coast. Last year we made BattSignal, winning Bay Area Favorite , but this time we wanted to make something purely for the fun of hacking. A joke, essentially.

So we crafted Snapgraph, a way to visualize your juicy Snapchat social network. Snapchat has no API, but that didn’t stop us. We scraped their site to find any user’s top three friends, and made an interactive graph out of these social relationships. Now, a little perspective: at that time Snapchat was still a silly juvenile app that not many knew about (I make no remarks on its current standing).

Realize, we exploited this back in January, way before it went viral [1][2][3]. I like to brag that in a sense, Snapgraph was ahead of it’s time. We taught ourselves how to design our own API, and got our hands dirty with node.js and mongodb. We started with mapping ourselves, then expanding out to our top friends, and so on until we saw interesting relationships. We kept automatically growing our database.

It was a hack with no closure, no purpose, nothing but a product of a joke. The best type of hack.

Fast forward to June 23rd when we competed in San Francisco’s API Hackday, and continued this joke to an unprecedented level. A friend spent an afternoon tinkering with the Snapchat app, discovering a way to programmatically send snaps to any specified user.

With that in mind, we curiously checked back on our Snapgraph database. “Huh, db shows 42,000 usernames.”

You can probably guess what was about to unfold here. The situation was begging for it. You would do the same if you were us. The opportunity was too perfect.

We sent everyone a video using the hack we just discovered.

The video asked them to smile back to enter in a photo contest. With over 2.5k replies, we built a social contest powered by snaps, won 3rd place, and literally made thousands of people smile. At first we had no idea what to do with this new-found superpower. The joke already outlived itself, though we’ve yet to hear the punch line.

Snapchat noticed our post on Hacker News and kindly asked us to stop. Alright, so we did. This was more of a tribute than anything, and I think they appreciated our intrinsic passion of tinkering for the pure fun of it. They generously invited us over to meet the team. Yess!

A hacker juggles 4-7 personal projects at any given time. While some may ultimately dwindle,the ones that succeed make up for more than double the losses. Failing fast and failing often is an indispensable skill, for it clears up time to work on projects that may unexpectedly triumph.

The youth of Computer Science is the greatest asset you and I possess.

We’re at a point where a decentralized mesh-net could rightfully supersede the internet. And within a blink of time, the evolution of the CPU might transcend to a non-Von Neumann neural emulation. The future of mobile may lie in elegantly tangled nanocomputers. Code will learn to fix, improve, and analyze itself.

Stop wondering, and start programming.

Thinkers glimmer. Hackers glow.

    Nishant Shukla

    Written by

    Programmer, Researcher, and Author http://shukla.io