Smack Might Be the Future of Social Apps, But I’m Not Cool Enough

Xconomy Boston — 

I’ve got a confession to make: I don’t get Snapchat.

I consider myself a generally tech-savvy person. I own a smartphone, I know my way around your average software program or mobile app, and I’m giddily hoping Santa delivers me an Amazon Echo Dot on Dec. 25.

But even though I’m a 27-year-old tech journalist, when it comes to Snapchat, I sound more like an old codger: What’s the point? Wouldn’t you rather capture those moments for posterity, not let them disappear into the ether? (Side rant: face swapping is super creepy, and superimposing doggie ears and a snout on your face is dumb.)

Still, 150 million global users—many of them younger than me—can’t be wrong, right?

So, the first takeaway: I’m lame.

The bigger lesson? The digital generation gap has shifted such that people less than a decade older than teenagers have trouble relating to the latest consumer technologies, particularly in social media. And the most popular technologies can catch on more quickly these days, thanks in no small part to young people who can barely remember a world without smartphones and social networks.

“That pace of change is only going to continue to trend upwards,” argues Giuseppe Stuto, the 26-year-old co-founder and CEO of Smack, a Techstars Boston alum that creates software products aimed at connecting people, primarily young millennials.

Stuto thinks the next big things in social networking are live video broadcasts and group video chats. In October, his three-year-old Boston-based startup released Smack Live, an iOS app that lets up to four users engage in a live video chat that gets broadcast online. Anyone viewing on the app can also interact with the hosts via text messages that show up as a running feed on the broadcast’s screen.

Like Snapchat, my first reaction was puzzlement: I get the appeal of video chatting with a group of my friends, but why would I want to broadcast our personal conversations to the world? And with an endless array of digital entertainment options at people’s fingertips, who would want to watch us talk?

Teenagers and people in their early 20s, apparently.

I tested the app Tuesday night with my friends Dave Wilson, who lives near Miami, and Joseph Lichterman, who, like me, lives in the Boston area. The three of us are Detroit Lions fans raised in Michigan, and our broadcast was entitled “Lions talk.” But our conversation ended up covering a lot of ground besides pro football: the commercial prospects for the Smack Live app, the evolution of social media, cyberbullying, and more.

I initiated the video feed and then accepted my friends’ requests to join the broadcast. We held our phones in our hands, so people could see our faces and a little bit of the wall or room behind us. As the chat’s host, my face took up most of the screen, with my friends visible in two smaller boxes on the upper right hand side.

I was impressed with Smack Live’s tech. The app never dropped the broadcast, and we didn’t notice any lag time—things I can’t say for Skype, the popular online video product owned by Microsoft. The Smack Live video feeds of my friends were a little choppy at times, but not distractingly so. The only glitch I noticed was frequent duplicate text messages from viewers.

More importantly, I had fun. After I got over the initial weirdness of complete strangers watching us talk and chiming in via text message, it did feel good to connect with new people, even if only through brief, superficial conversations about sports and the weather.

Some users got bored and tuned out, perhaps moving on to a different video feed on the app. But we maintained around five or six viewers at a time throughout most of our nearly hour-long broadcast, and we had 25 viewers in total. (It was past 9 p.m. on a school night, after all.)

I also racked up 353 heart emojis. During broadcasts, viewers can press a heart emoji icon on the screen to signal they’re enjoying the conversation, and those emojis accumulate like points on a user’s profile. Consider it a sign of Smack Live social currency, along with the number of followers one has on the app.

Screen shots from our "Lions talk" broadcast on Smack Live.

Screen shots from our “Lions talk” broadcast on Smack Live.

Stuto wouldn’t share how many users Smack Live has, but he says some of the early broadcasts have drawn more than 400 viewers.

He says young people are using Smack Live to share relationship advice, talk sports, debate politics, complain about school—basically, anything you might overhear at a high school cafeteria.

For those in front of the camera, broadcasting to their peers “makes them feel popular,” Stuto says. And for viewers, “maybe they’re just lonely and want to hang out with people,” he says.

I watched portions of three Smack Live broadcasts to get a feel for the community, and it was a mixed bag. One conversation was a microcosm of some of the worst parts of high school social life—a teenage boy boasting about beating up a kid at school, with commenters hurling insults about others’ physical appearance, and people showing a general lack of respect for each other. (That broadcast probably violated at least one of Smack’s community guidelines.)

But another broadcaster, a young French woman living in the U.S., told her viewers early on that she wanted a positive chat. She sat eating a crepe and talking with another young woman who asked to join as a guest broadcaster.

In the third broadcast I watched, two young men were cooking chicken in the kitchens of their respective homes. I was their only viewer for a few minutes, and it seemed like they knew each other and just wanted to (remotely) cook together. But they didn’t mind me watching, and one even invited me to join as a guest broadcaster.

One thing is for sure: Smack Live’s users aren’t shy. Stuto says one time a group of teenage girls were broadcasting their chat while wearing masks for cleansing their facial pores. Others broadcast from bed or in the bathroom while brushing their teeth. “It’s not weird to them,” he says. “That’s normal.”

At this point, Stuto and I laugh about how we sound like geezers, even though the age gap with teenagers is small. “We are literally in our mid-20s, and to us this is crazy talk. They’re really not that much younger than us,” he says. But “we will just never be able to fully empathize with them.”

“It’s difficult to understand, even for myself, because we just grew up differently,” he adds. “We didn’t have access to this type of technology in our handheld devices when we were going through high school.”

The first product that Stuto and his co-founders—Kevin Flynn, 32, and Franco Iudiciani, 23—built was SmackHigh, essentially an online message board for high school students. Students can anonymously submit social news, and a fleet of thousands of volunteer students sift out offensive items and post the rest on SmackHigh’s Twitter, Snapchat, and other social media accounts.

SmackHigh has accumulated more than 1 million subscribers from over 11,000 high schools, Stuto says. It has more than 20,000 volunteer “brand ambassadors.”

Stuto’s company decided to move next into live group video because users were submitting a lot of video content on SmackHigh. “Teens and young millennials are becoming more comfortable showcasing themselves over video,” he says. “Snapchat is the number one proof point.” (Snapchat started as a photo-sharing app, but added video capabilities in late 2012.)

Meanwhile, the list of live video broadcasting apps is growing. Periscope helped kick off the trend, and was later acquired by Twitter. Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook) both introduced live video features this year. Other players include YouNow.

But most of the apps Smack Live competes with only allow one person—not a group—to broadcast to a large audience. Group text messaging (think SMS and Facebook Messenger) has become crucial for many smartphone users, and Stuto thinks “live video is going to be the next solution for how to take these group chats to the next level.”

“It starts to become not just a cool thing, but it becomes a utility and necessity for enhancing one’s social circle and social value,” Stuto says.

If he’s right, we could be glimpsing the next step in the evolution of social media and communications technologies. I wonder if this is a stepping stone on the path to widespread use of virtual reality, for example.

Meanwhile, Smack introduced an app on Monday aimed at people like me who prefer their group video chats to remain private. Called Fam, the app is available on iOS as an add-on for Apple’s text messaging app, iMessage.

Interestingly, people in more than 40 countries have downloaded Fam, and it quickly shot to the top of the download rankings among free apps that integrate with iMessage, Stuto says.

“It’s definitely blasting way past Smack Live’s traction to date,” Stuto says, though he declines to share specifics. “I suspect there will be a strong, continued amount of buzz surrounding this.”

Of course, there is a lot that could go wrong for Smack. What if Apple builds a group video chat function directly into iMessage, rendering Fam unnecessary? Facebook and Snapchat could similarly introduce features that compete more directly with Smack Live. Competition from big tech companies could be hard to overcome for Smack—which has six full-time employees and has raised about $2.1 million in venture funding to date, Stuto says.

Smack will also have to figure out how to make money. The startup hasn’t generated any revenue yet. With Smack Live, Stuto thinks the company could give viewers the ability to give money to broadcasters; Smack would take a cut of those transactions. It could also have brands and advertisers pay for popular Smack Live broadcasters to showcase their products on the app, Stuto says.

For now, Stuto says Smack is focused on adding users. I probably won’t become one of the regulars, but I came away from this experience with a better appreciation of young millennials and what makes them tick. And that’s pretty cool.

Or, as the kids would say, that’s lit. OK, I’m still lame, but at least I’m trying now.

Just don’t ask me to start sharing rainbow-vomiting clouds on Snapchat.

[Top photo of Smack founders, from left to right: Kevin Flynn, Franco Iudiciani, and Giuseppe Stuto. Photo courtesy of Smack.]