What does it feel like to be a massive music festival? Nothing like a glossy livestream of the mainstage. Much more like Snapchat’s new Our Story feature, a curated channel of user submitted photos of videos from all around a big event. I was there last night at Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival, an 140,000-person dance music festival where Snapchat piloted Our Story. I can vouch that the decentralized perspective was remarkably accurate. Our Story has huge potential, and you can follow along tonight by adding “EDC Live” on Snapchat.
The startup’s other big experiment at EDC didn’t fare so well.
See, cell phone networks get overloaded at every music festival. Wouldn’t it make sense for Verizon or AT&T or someone to set up extra towers or Wifi to help their customers or lure in competitor’s? Well Snapchat tried to beat them to it by providing free wifi for the mega-rave, but only for using the official EDC app and…Snapchat.
The idea was that while people’s texts, Instagrams, Facebook posts and tweets wouldn’t send, Snapchats would go through in an instant.
Unfortunately, it didn’t really work.
I tried more than 20 times across my 8 hours at the festival, and never successfully connected to the Snapchat Wifi networks. None of a dozen people I talked to were able to connect either and many festival goers expressed frustration about the experience on Twitter. It would have been very useful as few people’s mobile networks could handle the load and communication became nearly impossible. But worse than just resigning to being disconnected, many like me wasted battery and attention futilely trying to jack into Snapchat’s wifi.
Maybe that’s why Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel looked a bit hurried when I ran into him for a split-second in the EDC media center just before midnight. Snapchat had secured a nice partnership with the festival that promoted it in the official EDC app. Banners around the grounds advertised “No Signal? No Problem” and advised people to connect to Snapchat’s wifi. Some people must have gotten it to work, but the promotion seems to have attracted more users than the network could handle. Still, it was a valiant effort, and I hope Snapchat and other companies keep experimenting with the concept though it fell short at EDC night 1. We’ll see if it improves the next two nights.
[Update: Snapchat's wifi problems persisted through much of the festival. Just before midnight on Sunday I met with Snapchat's on-site crew including COO Emily White. She admitted the company was a bit overly ambitious to say it would "provide everyone at EDC with free wifi access", but implied it was the popularity of Snapchat and its idea to offer an alternative to clogged mobile networks that caused the breakdown. As for Our Story, the team seemed to be glowing with its success. One member got a snap of his chosen for the EDC Live story, and saw his clip had been seen by over 130,000 people in the past 24 hours. I asked to see the content management system Snapchat was using to curate Our Story, but the squad refused, saying its nuts and bolts were a secret.]
The wifi would have been especially nice for uploading snaps to Our Story. My crummy AT&T network failed to push my clips to it, or let me watch it once the bulk of the ravers arrived around midnight.
But on the ride home at sunrise and hungover in bed this morning, Our Story was a lovely way to relive the night from different vantage points. A buddy who’d come with me to EDC in 2012 watched from home in Arizona and posted “EDC Live is a gamechanger. Can’t stop watching”. If he wanted a high-fidelity look at the big-name DJs on stage, he could watch the official EDC livestream powered by LessThan3, but Snapchat shows what it’s like on the ground.
What made Our Story special and much better than just lurking a hashtag was the curation. Using geofencing, Snapchat detected who was actually at the EDC festival grounds at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and only offered them the chance to contribute to Our Story.
Snapchat edited out any spam or objectionable content, but also boring and low-quality snaps. It cut down most photos it featured to just 1 second each the parade of Snaps stayed brisk and never got boring. It also managed to avoid overtly sexist content, which is tough when the crowd is full of amped up bros and scantly-clad ladies.
Our Story authentically portrayed the event, from people enduring the entrance lines to throwing down on the packed dance floors, taking selfies in the front row or soaking up the grandeur from the bleachers. No sarcastic quips from afar, no incoherent rambling, and not just the same lame pics over and over from the back of the crowd. Following the hashtag on Twitter delivers some good pictures but also plenty of self-promoting DJs and useless live tweets. On Instagram, there’s just so many photos from people in Vegas and getting ready in their hotels that the best ones from EDC itself are drowned out.
It’s only had one night in the wild, but I think Our Story could be big for Snapchat. That’s especially impressive considering the feature is all about public sharing rather than the private, intimate transmissions Snapchat built its name on.
Snapchat hasn’t announced plans for any additional Our Story events, but they could help keep the app growing and finally let it earn some money. If it’s the best way to follow along with big happenings, perhaps Coachella or the MTV Movie Awards, Our Story could seduce new users to Snapchat. Meanwhile, the feature acts like a digital jumbo-tron. It might re-engage lapsed users or get loyals ones sharing more if contributions to Our Story could make them ‘Snap-famous’.
Events might also be willing to pay for the promotion and cool-factor Snapchat could provide by setting them up with an Our Story. Snapchat could charge for inserting an event’s account into people friend lists, giving global visibility and buzz to music festivals, sports matches, and other big gatherings. Eventually, any geographically-centered community, from colleges to landmarks could have their own Our Story, though figuring out how to keep the curation strong will be a challenge. Two years ago I wrote that location-based photo feeds were what Instagram should do with Explore. Instagram discovery feature has hardly budged since, and now Snapchat is capitalizing on the opportunity.
As our prized possessions like photos and music become digitized, meatspace experiences are growing more valuable. Everyone can’t physically attend events like EDC, but Snapchat may have found a way to make the exhilaration scale with Our Story.