Snapchat's number of daily users has surpassed Twitter's, according to a Bloomberg report released yesterday. More than 150 million people use the social media app on a daily basis to chat and publish "stories" using instant photos and video, sometimes adorned with the stickers, emoijis, and animations. Twitter's daily users stand at less than 140 million, per recent estimates.
It is a significant moment in the battle of social media giants. While Twitter has become a distributor of breaking news headlines, credited with bringing down the powerful and giving voice to grass-roots movements worldwide, Snapchat first planted its flag firmly in the realm of social relations. Its meteoric rise since being launched in 2011 by Stanford University student Evan Spiegel has been fueled by the promise that no images shared by its users were permanent on its site. To a young tech-savvy generation eager for the opportunity to shed its vast digital trail that premise proved irresistible. But will its predominantly Generation Z and Millennial users eventually use the app to engage with the broader world?
"Millennials aren't sitting down and going to these platforms to get their news; they say that they go mainly for entertainment and social things," says Jennifer Benz, a principal researcher and deputy director of the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, speaking about social media platforms in general. "But when we ask about their behavior, how they are engaging with news, you could argue that it's a higher level of engagement than the older generation that had the five o'clock news on in the background as they're making dinner – they are liking stories, they are sharing stories, they are clicking on things from their network."
Snapchat users are specific demographic – more than two-thirds are younger than 34 – while Twitter users are more evenly spread between the 18-29 and 30-49 age brackets. On a fundamental level, users are doing different things on these two platforms. 59 percent of Twitter users are accessing news on the site, according to a Pew study released last week, compared to only 17 percent of Snapchatters. This is despite the company's partnerships with news organizations. But as the tectonic plates of news consumption shift to social media platforms and Snapchat's reach broadens, the app's potential for reshaping news is worth considering.
As things stand currently, Facebook is the top social media platform that Americans use to access news. In terms of purpose, though, news has long been central to Twitter's identity. "I want people to wake up every day and the first thing they check is Twitter in order to see what's happening in the world," Twitter founder Jack Dorsey told Vanity Fair.
Snapchat is actively trying to expand its news media feature, Discover, where publishing partners like National Geographic and ESPN create content in an image- and video-heavy, scrollable format exclusive to Snapchat. The company will reportedly release a redesign next week in the hopes of drawing even more users. Individual journalists, and people and organizations in the news, from Everest climbers to the White House, are also broadcasting via the "story" function on the app in efforts to reach new audiences.
However unlike Twitter and Facebook, which are built for stumbling upon news, Snapchat users must be actively following a news site or journalist, or click on a publisher's Discover icon to see that content.
But as a chatting app, Snapchat could fit into another trend in news consumption: the rise of messaging apps for news, à la Facebook bots, which dish out personalized news from publishers like CNN via the site's Messenger app.
The marriage of chat apps and news consumption suits Millennial sensibilities, researchers learned in a joint study between the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The generation is "drawn into news that they might otherwise have ignored because peers are recommending and contextualizing it for them on social networks," the report says, "as well as on more private networks such as group texts and instant messaging."
Claire Wardle, senior researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, points out a prerequisite for chat apps looking to break into news: users' interest. They won't automatically encounter news on Snapchat, or receive updates from a Facebook news bot.
But these apps could evolve our relationship to news, she says, commenting that chat apps are "less about consuming, and more about understanding the news in a different way. And it can reach people who aren't traditionally going to news sites."