Snap’s Evan Spiegel on Elon Musk, Twitter and the limits of self-expression

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There’s a lot of debate over what makes a successful social media platform.

Elon Musk promises to prioritise freedom of speech if he takes over Twitter but balancing that with moderation is a course that networks have tried to navigate since their inception.

In the wake of the Tesla chief’s $44bn buyout of Twitter, the company has sought to reassure advertisers that their posts will not appear alongside harmful or offensive content, a sign of fears the platform might become a more toxic place under Musk.

Meanwhile Meta — the owner of Facebook and Instagram — said 20 per cent of all time spent on Instagram was watching Reels, its short-form video feature — a format more about copying TikTok with dance and cat videos, than political debate.

Snapchat has focused on private communications and augmented reality. And, although its recent results missed revenue goals, daily users grew 18 per cent, faster than rivals Meta and Twitter.

TechFT spoke to Snap chief executive Evan Spiegel, who was keen to distance Snapchat from Twitter and social media altogether.

Snap has released a pocket flying camera, available in the US and France for $229.99 © Snap

CC: Would you call yourself a social media platform?

ES: We’ve never called ourselves a social media platform. We are a camera company for communicating with your close friends and family

CC: How much are you pivoting towards hardware with Spectacles and Pixy, the new flying camera announced today?

ES: A lot of our focus on hardware has been trying to enable things that aren’t possible with the hardware that exists today. There are a lot of limitations [with a phone as] you have to hold it in your hand. It’s this tiny little screen that you’re staring down at. To really unlock the potential in the future, we’ve got to find a way to make augmented reality more immersive and to help you walk around and use your hands and your voice to interact.

CC: My past few weeks have been filled with Elon and Twitter, who seems to want to reduce moderation and expand the boundaries of free speech. Do you think it’s a good thing for civil discourse?

(A 15-second pause)

ES: It has been transformational over the past decade to watch so many more people get a voice that they didn’t have. That has had undeniably positive effects on our society.

At the same time, we are grappling with the challenge that when you give everyone a voice, sometimes people say things that aren’t true or that are hurtful. Sometimes, that type of speech can actually harm healthy self-expression. Because if you’re in an environment where you feel like someone’s going to harass you or say something untrue, that actually can limit your ability to express yourself, it can make you fearful and not want to share.

Our philosophy at Snapchat has been about promoting self-expression by creating an environment where people are comfortable to do that, without public likes and comments, without content that can go wildly viral without being curated.

If you’d like to dig deeper into Elon Musk & Twitter, we are holding a subscriber-only webinar on May 4 for an up-to-the-minute virtual briefing on the likely consequences of the world’s richest man acquiring the social media platform he describes as the “bedrock of a functioning democracy”. Send your questions in advance and claim your free pass today at: https://on.ft.com/3MsKFnk

The Internet of (four) Things

1. Apple faces new antitrust battle in Brussels
The tech giant will be challenged over the way it restricts rivals from accessing its mobile payments system Apple Pay. The $2.5tn company would receive heavy fines worth up to 10 per cent of global turnover if the charges are upheld.

2. Twitter overstated audience figures for three years
In its first-quarter results, Twitter admitted “an error” meant it had overstated its monthly active users by as much as 1.9mn for almost three years. Shares in Twitter rose about 1 per cent to $49.05 in early trading, below the $54.20 per share price at which Musk has agreed to buy the company.

3. Britain’s Online Safety Bill could stifle competition
The chief executive of a group of the four main media regulators in the UK has said start-ups face “prohibitive costs” for complying with the new Online Safety Bill passing through parliament. The new laws aim to compel tech companies to better protect their users, resulting in higher moderation costs and hefty penalties for breaking the rules.

4. Tech wins among the Americas’ fastest-growing companies
In the FT’s third annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth rate, tech companies in the region are thriving, including start-ups in Calgary and payment apps in Buenos Aires. Hiring good talent as quickly as the companies grow, though, is proving a challenge.

Tech tools — Polaroid Go

© Polaroid

The Polaroid Go has been launched in black and red with a series of coloured lenses to add an artsy filter, without having to use a social media app.

The tiny camera is 4.1 inches long, 3.3 inches wide and 2.4 inches tall, fitting in your pocket for travel. The Polaroid 3 Color Filter Set has three clip-on lenses that add an orange, blue or red tint to your instant photos.

The Polaroid Go is available now in black, red and white for £109.99. The clip-on filters cost £18.99.

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