Chat, Don’t Snap

Reactions to Evan Spiegel’s alleged comment are a reflection on him — and us

Written by Utkarsh Amitabh | Updated: April 18, 2017 6:01 am
Snapchat, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, Evan Spiegel, Snapchat CEO, Evan Spiegel Poor India comment, Evan Spiegel anti-India comment, Evan Spiegel vs Anthony Pompliano lawsuit, Snapchat Lawsuit, Snapchat Anthony Pompliano, Snapchat India rankings, Snapchat Users India Evan Spiegel allegedly said that Snapchat was only for rich people, not for poor countries like India and Spain. (Source: Reuters)

Snapchat is a popular image messaging and multimedia mobile application where messages are fleeting, just like several relationships are today. Young couples and potential partners share digital intimacy on it through charming photo filters, decorated messages and hilarious cat videos. In 2015, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel allegedly said that Snapchat was only for rich people, not for poor countries like India and Spain.

This came under public scrutiny — generating a storm of opinion — when Snap Inc., the parent company, dropped its efforts to keep the complaints of an ex-employee, Anthony Pompliano, under seal. Within a day of this alleged statement becoming public in India, the app rating dropped from “five star” to a “single star” on the App Store. Things intensified further: Some users even confused Snapchat for Snapdeal and deleted or downgraded the app used by the e-commerce platform.

Responding to criticisms of digital racism and of having wounded the national pride of India and Spain, a Snapchat spokesperson said that the app was meant for “everyone”. The words used in a media response reportedly were: “This is ridiculous… It’s available worldwide to download for free.”

There are three quick realisations to note here — public opinion now travels at the speed of light; technology moves faster than public opinion; taking offence seems to be emerging as a fundamental right.

Personally speaking, I take great pride in India’s national heritage, our rich history, our pluralism, our democratic values, our remarkable economic growth in the past few years and our impressive achievements in science, literature and technology. I do not need validation by the CEO of any multinational to bolster my belief. She or he can have a personal opinion which might contradict mine. I will respect her or his right to have their view — as well as my own right to agree to disagree. National pride is not made of glass: Provocations should strengthen, not shatter it.

Let us explore what technologists and marketers call “product-market fit”. This means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that particular market. India has one of the largest mobile penetrations in the world and most of its users are under 35 years as well as aspirational beings. To date, there are approximately four million Snapchat users in India. Several businesses are also starting to use apps like Snapchat and Instagram. Recent growth figures suggest that the product-market fit has been more than established.

With this in mind, let us address the thorny question of Evan Spiegel reportedly calling India and Spain too poor for consideration. If Mr Spiegel actually did utter those words, it speaks volumes about him as a CEO and a human being. First, he apparently grossly underestimated the digital revolution and the market potential of India. This would not speak highly of his managerial and executive acumen.

Second, he seemingly put India and Spain in the same category based on income levels. This again would seriously question his grasp of economics. Third, his core motivation apparently was to cater to “rich people.” While that does sound crass, he is not the only CEO who might hold this opinion. Many luxury products are designed, manufactured and marketed only for “rich people”. Without taking a moral stand here, it is clear that these decisions are often dictated by economic factors, market analyses and the free will of the entrepreneur.

Further, Evan Spiegel is the CEO of a freely available digital application. A basic online search of the revenue potential of digital products and applications in different economic segments in the coming decade will resoundingly invalidate his alleged hypothesis; again, not exactly brownie points for smart decision-making. Now, let us consider the possible scenario of Spiegel not actually having said any of this.

What if all this was just a disgruntled employee trying to settle a score? Based on the information available, can we say beyond reasonable doubt that Evan Spiegel is a digital racist? We can’t. But perhaps, we can testify to our own selves being somewhat thin-skinned. How about tempering our certitude and letting the facts speak for themselves?

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