After watching Snapchat wade into racially insensitive territory once again last week, Katie Zhu decided she’d had enough. The San Francisco–based Medium engineer picked up her phone, deleted the app, and penned a Medium post encouraging others to leave as well. The post’s title: "I’m Deleting Snapchat, and You Should Too.”
The screw-up that inspired Zhu to abandon Snapchat — a face-morphing filter resembling yellowface, an offensive Asian caricature — would until recently exist largely as a public relations problem. Social companies anger their users all the time, but the ire rarely translates into defection, since it’s hard to find the exact same features and network elsewhere (see: Facebook). But this time, it was different.
“Instagram now has a Snapchat Stories clone,” Zhu wrote. “So I’ll still be able to take mundane pictures of my day to day life.”
Zhu isn’t the only one noting the platforms’ interchangeability, and making a choice between them.
We’re just about two weeks into Instagram’s admitted cloning of Snapchat Stories, but tweets from folks jumping ship could be early signs of trouble, particularly if they gain momentum. In the past, Snapchat might have been able to skate away from slip-ups thanks to its product strength, but now users have a choice.
While Zhu's departure from Snapchat and those of the others whose tweets are listed above are hardly evidence of a brewing mass exodus, they suggest that Snapchat's continuing filter foibles and Instagram's offering of a Snapchat Stories alternative could become a recipe for attrition.
“It's easier and easier, frankly, to be able to leave a place where you don't like the people, or the attitude, and find the same experience somewhere else,” Karen North, director of USC Annenberg’s Digital Social Media program, told BuzzFeed News. Snapchat, she explained, is “not immune from people leaving the way Facebook was for so many years because they don't own your social network.”
Victor Anthony, managing director and senior analyst at Axiom Capital Management, agreed.
"Now that Instagram has essentially come out with an identical feature set, I do think it puts competitive pressure on Snapchat," he told BuzzFeed News.
It's worth noting that this isn't the first time a poorly conceived Snapchat filter has elicited cries of outrage. In April, Snapchat released a Bob Marley filter some referred to as “digital blackface."
The company defended itself following outcry over the yellowface resembling filter, telling The Verge that it was inspired by anime. But that explanation didn’t cut it for Zhu and others. Zhu’s response: “Buuuullshit. Anime characters are known for their angled faces, spiky and colorful hair, large eyes, and vivid facial expressions.”
“People in every walk of life accidentally stumble upon things that are insensitive because they're thinking of one thing and they don't realize it has implications for something else,” North said of the yellowface incident. “But when you're a platform that has such broad distribution, meaning anything digital, there's a responsibility to vet things much more carefully than people did in the brick and mortar days.”
For Snapchat, which rose to popularity on a pretty distinct feature set, there was a time when a high-profile misstep like yellowface might have been diffused with little in the way of user revolt. But with a powerful and well-established rival like Instagram positioning itself as a Snapchat alternative by cloning some of the service's key features, user attrition could become more of a risk. Indeed, it seems at least a few folks are already heading for the door.
Snapchat has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at email@example.com.
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