Image Is Everything: Snapchat Tops WhatsApp As Biggest U.S. Messaging App By Volume

Snapchat may be getting a rap on the knuckles right now from regulators over how it handles user privacy, but the ephemeral messaging app is still a hot commodity. According to a report out today from network traffic specialist Sandvine, Snapchat is now the top third-party messaging app in North America by volume, “generating more traffic each day than competing services such as WhatsApp.”

Its force, it should be noted, is nothing compared to the likes of video apps, which individually and collectively continue to dominate Sandvine’s North American top-10 list for network traffic both for fixed and mobile carriers. The impact of these data-heavy services has particular resonance this week, with a key Net Neutrality vote coming up in the U.S.

Sandvine’s research — based on monitoring network traffic across a number of its mobile and fixed carrier customers — drives home the point that video and other media services are at the centre of our data network usage.

Snapchat is an interesting measure of this: it’s not just that it is popular (although, clearly, it is), it’s also the nature of its basic service, constructed around data heavy features like picture (and now) video messaging, which gives it a major volume impact.

The same applies to another service that you might not have thought would beat out others simply because of its niche appeal: Twitch.TV, which lets users watch others play video games (perhaps odd-sounding to those of us who are not gamers, but a massive thing for those of us who are).

“Twitch.TV and Snapchat have emerged and are now top-ranked applications in many regions across the globe,” Sandvine writes. “Twitch.TV…now generates more traffic than HBO Go in the U.S. Snapchat on the other hand has seen high traffic volumes on many mobile networks due to the fact it only allows subscribers to send picture messages, while competing services such as WhatsApp allow users to send plain text.”

In other words, popularity + media type = major traffic influence.

This is an interesting point to consider, when you think about what Snapchat might do next and what its impact might be in the future. To drive more, and more diverse, traffic, Snapchat has been working with third parties to put more content on its network. A partnership with mobile news startup Now This News that we heard about last week has yet to be made official, but it looks like that will be pushing and pulling more original broadcast content on Snapchat’s network.

At the same time, Snapchat is also regularly the subject of M&A speculation — with both Facebook and Google apparently trying to buy the startup. (And for the record, we confirmed with a source very close to the situation that the Google approach did happen.)

In fact, Google, we’ve also heard from sources (and rumored elsewhere) apparently offered as much as $10 billion for the site at one point.

Sounds crazy? When you consider Google-owned YouTube’s position in the rankings below, Snapchat’s popularity, and the general belief that mobile-first is where everyone has to go next (oh, and Facebook’s $19 billion WhatsApp deal), suddenly price tags like these don’t seem so unreasonable.

As a measure of how and when Snapchat is used, Sandvine zeroed in on New Year’s Eve traffic, especially as it compared to other “OTT” messaging app traffic:

“When Sandvine looked at the New Year’s Eve usage of some services like WhatsApp and kik that focus primarily on using text to send a messages we observed that there was a tiny spike in usage at midnight, but nothing that moved the needle that much, since plain text doesn’t consume that much bandwidth,” Sandvine writes. “Snapchat, a service that allows users to exchange only pictures, however, was a totally different story. In 2013 it saw both its user base and bandwidth share rise significantly.” Sandvine provides data from a regional mobile operator in the U.S. “that shows the surge in use that the service experienced throughout the day and particularly at midnight. In fact, at 12:00 AM Snapchat accounted for 12% of this one network’s total traffic.”

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That was indicative of what Sandvine saw happening in European networks, too, the company writes.

The bigger picture with network traffic, as it has been for years now, is about the role of video and other media services, which put a much larger strain on networks because they use up significantly more data packets. Clearly, those who have stopped using other pay-TV services — so-called “cord cutters” — are leading the charge, although even those who still pay for TV services are making a mark:

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Drilling down into usage, Sandvine notes that North America, in upstream traffic, video, audio and photo-heavy sites account for 7 of the top 10 biggest services in upstream traffic, with more generic HTTP and SSL making up the other two, and Skype the third (although Skype, too, is used a lot for its video calling features). BitTorrent is the number-one traffic driver, accounting for nearly one-quarter of all traffic.

Downstream, video streaming site Netflix is the top-listed traffic driver, with just over 34% of all traffic. It also accounted for the most on aggregate, at 31% of all traffic — which also shows what an influence downstream is in this game… we are more consumers than we are creators of traffic.

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In mobile, video and other media services are also seeing the biggest impact but within a more fragmented landscape, with YouTube leading on aggregate at just over 17%.

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In Europe the story is largely the same in terms of what kinds of services are accounting for the most traffic, with BitTorrent taking an even larger share. Interestingly, Netflix is far less significant in terms of its impact, and Amazon doesn’t make it in at all.

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As in the U.S. on mobile, Facebook is in pole position with upstream traffic at just under 18%, although downstream and on aggregate, it’s HTTP.

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