I was recently talking to someone much older than myself about Snapchat, and why anyone would want to use it. My explanation is that, beyond the emphemeral thing, which Snapchat is sort of moving away from anyway, it's the social network that truly allows people to be creative, giving them stickers and emoji and lenses, letting users make something really interesting and unique.
No other company really does that, at least not to the same degree (Facebook Messenger would probably be the closest one)
Unfortunately, as interesting as that aspect of the service is, it also has the capacity to backfire on the company in a big way. Case in point: two times already this year, Snapchat has been accused of racial insensitivity due the launch of one of its filters.
On Tuesday, Snapchat released a new filter that was meant to make users look like an anime-character. Instead, it was accused of promoting yellow-face, a term for when white performers use make up to make themselves look Asian, along with all of the sterotypes that involves (squinted eyes, buck teeth, etc)
The reaction on social media was not pretty.
Why do I get the feeling snapchat is being racist again pic.twitter.com/gWYxRU4Z99— AFKaymook (@k_mukai) August 9, 2016
There are two big questions that need to be asked here. First, what was Snapchat thinking? And second, how did it not learn its lesson from the last time this happened, which was only four months ago?
On April 20 of this year, aka 4/20, Snapchat managed to piss off a whole lot of people with a filter that allowed people to dress themselves up like Bob Marley, with darkened skin and dreadlocks, leading people to accuse Snapchat of promoting blackface. The company pointed out that the lens was "created in partnership with the Bob Marley Estate," but that didn't seem to make anyone feel better.
The 4/20 thing, aka a national holiday for pot smokers, also got people angry over the fact that Snapchat seemed to be celebrating the fact that Marley, who was from Jamaica, and was a Rastafarian, a religion that sees cannabis as sacramental, got high a lot. But mostly it was the "give yourself creepy brown skin" aspect that really set people off.
This gets us back to the first question: how did something like this make it past the idea stage in the first place? The most obvious answer would probably be a lack of diversity, but that's not clear.
While many companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, have released diversity reports, showing the breakdown of their employees by race and gender, Snapchat has not chosen to do so. So it's impossible to say if the problem comes from not having enough voices in the room. It's possible that Snapchat has a large Asian workforce, and that this somehow got through anyway.
However it happened, the anime-inspired Lens has already expired, and won't be put back into circulation. And now we can only hope that Snapchat finally learns its lesson from these two big mistakes.