Why can’t telcos do a Snapchat?

The answer to this question is they did: it was called the Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) – remember that? This was basically an extension to SMS, allowing users to add pictures and short videos to text messages.

MMS was commercialised in the mid-2000s for feature phones using 3G networks, and already provided the core of what Snapchat does: sending a picture accompanied by a caption.

Following mass adoption of smartphones, MMS usage – which had never come near to the scale of SMS – slumped, even though smartphones ought to have made the sending and receiving of MMS cheaper, more standardised, and user-friendly. By now, even comparatively basic Android phones don’t provide it as an option.

So why has Snapchat succeeded where MMS failed? The success and failure factors become more obvious when you look at the differences between the two services:

The undead zombie of MMS

The most crucial distinction in the above table is the last one: non-real-time (MMS) vs real-time (Snapchat). MMS messages were just that: messages that were deposited in the recipient’s phone rather like voicemail messages, to be picked up at a time of the recipient’s convenience but after the moment recorded in the picture had passed. It was as if the text component of the MMS was saying: “here we were then; we had a great time”. The MMS message also lingers on the phone’s memory for as long as you want it, like the undead zombie of a memory that has already been buried and forgotten.

By contrast, the Snapchat message is ‘in the moment’, and demands an instant and like response (in both senses of the word ‘like’). It says “here we are now, and we’re having a great time; where are you and what are you up to?” It is an instant picture (‘snap’) and an instant conversation (‘chat’) – and like an actual shared moment (in the real world) between two or more people, it’s also gone in an instant: the Snapchat message vanishes like the ghost of Snap Inc.’s logo, in a matter of seconds.

The myth of ‘real time’ messaging

Of course, the ‘real-time’, instant character of the Snapchat message is merely an artefact: the message itself is just as static and inert as MMS. And the illusion that the recipient is ‘virtually present’ to the people or event recorded in the Snapchat message is fostered by the message’s very evanescence, mimicking that of ‘real time’: once it’s gone it’s gone.

In other words, the Snapchat message enacts the message content as if the viewer were ‘really present’ to it (and, by extension, as if sender and viewer were present to each other); but that content is in fact just a representation of reality, not present reality itself. By contrast, the MMS makes no such pretence and is just a static, retrospective representation of a past moment.

Making reality more real

In essence, this is what most of social media and other ‘virtual-real-time’ entertainment and communications services (ranging from streaming video to VR) are striving to create: the impression of being instantly transported to a heightened and more exciting place – a ‘more real’ reality, more present and more ‘shared’ than the lived reality of individual experience and singular personhood.

The era of constant connectivity is polarising us into two camps: those who urge us to put the damn smartphone away for a second and just ‘enjoy the moment’, and those who cry, “Show us pics or it isn’t real”. But to be ‘real’, these need to be real-time pics: Who wants to receive a picture of a past moment to which the receiver was not present (MMS), rather than to be immersed in the present moment of another’s experience? The fact that it’s not actually real-time is, as it were, immaterial. What matters is it’s entertaining and an experience of being taken out of yourself. Unlike, say, a mere voice call, which is real-time but is just me talking to you, who are not really with me.

Is Snapchat’s valuation a virtual reality?

Maybe that’s why Snapchat was valued at $28 billion at its IPO this week while old-school telco revenues are struggling even to flatline. But just like the ghosts of its messages and its defunct  logo, will Snapchat’s valuation vanish away once the desire and excitement to which it speaks fails to be converted into hard cash?

Meanwhile, we may not desire to talk and message one another, one-to-one; but we still need to. Some would say that’s a safer bet in the long term.

Will the zombie of plain old telecoms rise up to slay the ghost of social media IPOs past? Only ‘real’ time will tell.

Read our latest analysis and insights on our telco research hub here.