The Future of Instagram & Snapchat Stories

Hint: you can physically touch it

I. Is Social A Story?

Social networks and apps have popularized the notion of “stories” as a mechanic to get people to post more stuff. But if you unpack it, these aren’t really stories.

First, the fundamental mechanic in any engaging story is tension. As my good friend Jerod, a story artist for billion dollar box office movies describes, “it’s like a porcupine who falls in love with a balloon”. You feel the inherent tension just by the title and an understanding of the two characters.

In social media, the characters are real, everyday people. But our “stories” are a series of selfies, food shots, and friends and family. Every story in the social landscape looks like every other story. And there’s zero tension.

Social media is not a story.

However, if you look at the successful social celebrities who blow up YouTube, you’ll start to notice something different. They do add tension to their videos. Pew Die Pie, Jenna Marbles, and Jake Paul all keep you wondering, “what’s going to happen next?”. It’s the same formula that Kanye and Kim both have used but from a Stock & Awe strategy rather than a humorous one. Sadly, the internet remains unbroken.

Let’s revisit the reasons someone is going to follow you.

  1. You’re already famous. That was easy.
  2. You’re entertaining. Dick Van Dyke show.
  3. You teach them something. A train leaves Chicago traveling at 90mph…
  4. They know you personally. Sup mayn.
  5. They’re attracted to you. Goodnight, moon.

Incidentally, that’s why people pay for real stories in movies and TV shows (Netflix, HBO Now, Apple TV channels), but don’t pay for user generated content (that picture of you with friends on Facebook). For the latter, that’s why social networks use all that data to monetize with ads.

II. Why Physical Objects Matter

Wherever you are right now, I want you to look up from your phone or computer and perform a thought experiment for me. How many man-made physical things are around you right now? My guess is a lot unless you work from an Amazonian tree.

Somebody, somewhere paid for that object. It also probably took lots of somebodies to concept, create, and get that object to where it’s sitting right now. Both of those things added together create value. Value that someone is willing to pay for. They exchange money for a thing. Value equals value.

Now, lets flip this thought experiment on its head and look around you again. How many apps do you see in the real world around you? How many social networks? How much software do you see physically manifesting itself in our world?

The answer, of course, is precisely zero.

Now, the tech heads in the audience will be quick to point out that it’s coming with augmented and mixed reality. That we’ll wear glasses or a SpaceBalls Dark Helmet visor. You’d be right that then you can start to see apps in the supposedly “real” world. But until that day comes, we’re surrounded by artisinal chairs and metallic forks and Vogue-ey clothes and Starbucks cups.

So we spend money on the really real, but not on the supposedly “real”. Because Facebook should be free, right?

III. What Memories Have To Do With It

Stick with me here because I’m building towards a point. Namely that when you take both things described above, real stories and real physical objects, you create a multiplicative effect of value.

Take a look around you again, but this time through a new perspective. Instead of thinking about real objects versus digital, I want you to think about the stories contained in those objects. The memories.

Maybe it’s coffee that one of your office mates bought for you while you chatted about work stresses. Maybe you’re at home and it’s a teddy bear that your significant other won at a summer fair. Maybe you pass by a bar or restaurant where you remember having a raucously good time with friends.

No matter what it is, those things remind you of something. They represent memories.

Physical objects are your mind’s database for storing the memories of your life.

It’s the books on your desk, the couch you bought together, the picture frame that holds a special moment. In every case, these things are the keepers of your life’s story. These are the real Snapchat Stories of your life.

But they hide their secrets from any hacker because the information, these memories, are encoded in your mind, not in the actual object. The object is simply the access device. Like an iPhone without an interface.

IV. What This All Means

Very simply, that Instagram and Snapchat represent a single step on the road towards a true story encoded in a physical object. These two social apps are first steps with two very real issues at their core:

  1. Myth of privacy. No matter what the privacy policy says, if you put something on a social network, it’s stored in a database, and therefore susceptible to employees, advertisers, hackers, or Snowden lookalikes. Nothing online is truly private.
  2. Gorillas in the myst effect. When Dian Fossey studied gorillas in the jungle, she affected their behavior simply by being there. By observing. Even as scientists, simply knowing about something can alter its state. That’s why double blind tests are necessary. And why Schrödinger’s Cat is such a weird, yet true, effect of quantum mechanics. If you know someone’s going to view the content you post online, then it makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do. Like making a kissy face, flexing your muscles, humble bragging, or simply getting angry at the behavior and not posting anything at all. None of us are immune.

Now that Instagram launched a feature exactly the same as Snapchat’s, everyone in the tech community is up in arms. They’re jumping on the story for, you guessed it, clicks likes and retweets. Just like me! But as we’ve shown, these stories are not real, ahem, stories.

You would never pay money for a 2 hour movie with a mundane, illogical, continuous stream of photos and shaky videos. That’s not our life. It’s not our story. It’s not our memory. And it’s not lasting.

But look at that gift sitting across the room that someone special gave you. Doesn’t that hold far more emotional weight than fast-tapping through a bunch of “content”? I would argue it does.

And the pendulum will, eventually, swing the other way.

V. The Future

Now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Okay buster, if you’re so smart, what do you think the answer is?”. Well, to be truthful I don’t know because I can’t predict the future. But I have had a premise in mind for years and years and years that I would love for someone to make come true. It was at the heart of the now defunct and failed StoryApp.

When we die, all our memories, stories, and knowledge are lost forever. Only the rich or famous get memoirs. Steve Jobs, Phil Knight, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk.

What about the rest of us?

What about your grandmother? The ones who raised you and forced you to put up sheetrock, spackle, and still wear high heels to the construction business she built? What about the entrepreneurial uncle who electrified your city then retired to build airplanes in his garage? What about your dad who passed away before you could even walk?

To whom do you ask your questions?

The ether?

It’s not good enough. And neither is Snapchat or Instagram. One day soon, we’ll have Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. But until then, I guess these “stories” will have to suffice.

Besides, the ‘S’ doesn’t stand for stories. It stands for hope.

— Sean