Snapchat and Spiegel’s Interesting Call on the Hong Kong Demonstrations

I don’t mean to pile onto Snapchat in the middle of the #Snappening.

But I thought there was something interesting that went missed in CEO Evan Spiegel’s multi-generational chat with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week at the Vanity Fair Summit.

During the Hong Kong demonstrations that blew up this month, he and his team briefly discussed turning the protests into an ‘Our Story,’ and then decided not to do it. ‘Our Story’ is a feature that Snapchat launched over the summer so that users at the same location can adds Snaps to the same collective Story. They launched it with the EDC music festival and you can see how it works here.

So why promote the drug-fueled electronic music festival EDC and not some of the most visible pro-democracy protests that greater China has seen in two decades?

Spiegel explained:

“One of my pet peeves over time is how the technology industry has tried to sell counterculture. It’s tried to sell the revolution. We’ve been really resistant to doing this. We didn’t feel like pushing these photos and videos out would turn that attention into action that would be helpful in Hong Kong.”

The Tech Industry’s Cultural Shift As It Moves Out of Silicon Valley

Snapchat has some very different sensibilities than its slightly older Northern Californian counterparts like Facebook and Twitter. For one, Spiegel left the Valley for Venice Beach, near where he grew up in Pacific Palisades. Instead of showing up in a hoodie and flip-flops like a younger Zuckerberg, he appeared on-stage with Bloomberg wearing a $220 sweatshirt from Acne Studios.

Los Angeles and New York have, er, more transparently transactional business cultures than the ambitiously loopy San Francisco Bay Area. Los Angeles’ big consumer Internet startups like Tinder, Whisper and Snapchat haven’t outgrown their lascivious roots the way that Facebook has had to leave its fratty beginnings behind and move onto building drones and buying virtual reality companies like Orange County’s Oculus.

And while San Francisco does have younger and unabashedly ruthless companies like Uber, there is still a cultural expectation that you’re supposed to be making the world a better place. For example, Google is one of the main financial supporters of a startup incubator in the Gaza Strip, on the belief that knowledge-based jobs will help Gazans get around Israeli blockades and find economic mobility. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey showed up in his hometown of St. Louis to join the Ferguson demonstrations, and the company was so proud of its role that it even tackily decorated its office with a #ferguson hashtag.

So I suppose it comes down to your tastes in tech overlords. Do you want companies that try and not be evil, so you can hold them accountable to their ideals and rhetoric when they inevitably mess up? Or you do want companies that are less actively interested in the greater social good, whatever that may be?

Chinese Capital and its Growing Influence in the U.S. Startup Ecosystem

The second point I wanted to make is that while it sounds like this was an individual call that Spiegel and other leaders made, Snapchat either has taken investment or has been in funding conversations with some of China’s biggest Internet companies.

Tencent is a covert investor and the company reportedly had talks over the summer with Alibaba. Chinese capital is and will continue to be an invaluable tool going forward for Snapchat to remain an independent entity and rebuff acquisition talks with Facebook. I could imagine that actively promoting political unrest in greater China through social media might complicate some of these relationships.

For years, companies like Facebook and Twitter have mostly written mainland China off. After Google largely pulled out of China a few years ago amid frustration with hacking attacks and censorship, few pure software plays outside of professionally-focused products like LinkedIn have tried to compete against well-protected local mainland Chinese rivals. (Hardware companies like Apple are the exception.)

Today, the U.S. and Chinese markets are starting to converge again in a totally different way. Now that Alibaba has gone public and is worth $221 billion on public markets, it and the other Chinese giants like Baidu and Tencent are finding that it’s easier to break into U.S. markets through investments in startups instead of direct expansion. Many deals are in gaming, where I think the expertise of Chinese companies in free-to-play gaming, virtual goods and paid premium business models that are less reliant on online advertising is arguably superior to that of Western companies.

But I have to wonder that when you’re dealing with pure communication utilities like Snapchat, how will an influx of Chinese capital influence the sensibilities of U.S. startups around public discourse and free speech?