On the day Snapchat announced partnerships to host media content from publications like VICE and National Geographic, Bloomberg’s Joseph Weisenthal tweeted, “Real talk for a moment. I’ve never used Snapchat. Is this a career liability, a la not using Twitter from 2009-2015?” Then yesterday, Slate’s 32-year-old tech reporter Will Oremus shared similar anxieties, posing the question, “Is Snapchat Really Confusing, or Am I Just Old?”
I can sympathize. I am 30, and although there was a period of time in late 2013 when many of my friends — most of whom are between the ages of 27 and 35 — had gleefully experimented with this new communication tool, Snapchat proved among my cohort to be just that: an experiment. After a few months, the only unopened Snaps I had in queue were from one or two friends still addicted to the service. Bored with that less-than-fulfilling social experience, I too stopped using it and haven’t opened the app in months.
But as Snapchat has continued to explode in popularity, especially among youths, media organizations have begun to use it to target young readers. Should I reverse course and resume snapping selfies and pithy comments to my friends, even though they probably haven’t opened the app in months either? Am I about to be left in the dust by the next great social media movement? Or am I too late already? As a simple Twitter man living in a Snapchat world, should I be taken out behind a shed and shot, my body thrown on the pile of print journalists, steam locomotive engineers, and other outmoded personnel?
No. Because barring specific circumstances, tech journalists don’t have to use a company’s product every day to write about it.
There are plenty of worthwhile ways journalists analyze companies that go far beyond the product itself or its usability — there are financial growth metrics, acquisition strategies, data security practices and, most importantly to our field, critical reporting on potential corruption and malfeasance committed by a company’s executives. These are the things tech journalists should be most focused on, not whether Snapchat’s new emojis are sufficiently “on fleek.”
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with wanting to keep up with the kids. Like it or not, tech culture has become popular culture, and so knowing how people are using Snapchat is a component of covering the larger zeitgeist surrounding this industry. On a deeper level, understanding how millions of people interact with tech and the ways these interactions evolve over time can lead to fascinating sociological and psychological observations about human behavior. But even then, being a heavy user of the product in question isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite. Possessing an understanding of broader social dynamics, and knowing how and where they play out among particular demographics, is far more important.
But to go back to Weisenthal’s original question: What about Twitter? Almost every journalist I know, young or old, is on Twitter today. If any young journalists or J-school students told me they don’t feel the need to have a Twitter account, I would quickly disabuse them of that notion.
But Twitter isn’t simply a company we cover for its standing in the tech industry. It’s an essential journalistic tool itself — and it’s essential to more than simply promoting your personal brand. It’s used to respond to questions and comments, legitimate or otherwise, from colleagues and readers. It’s a sourcing tool, used to find stories and interview subjects. It’s also a fine way to offer up a thesis to the masses and gauge a reaction before deciding whether or not to explore it further in a longer format.
Is Snapchat an essential journalistic tool? Judging by these media partnerships it may become one — but its ephemeral nature and closed network dynamics make it much less useful to journalists than Twitter’s completely open forum. Even within the context of the partnerships, it seems to be more of a promotional tool than a reporting tool. And already, Snapchat’s power users — teens — are less than enthused about the update. Finally, even if Snapchat later becomes a important component of a journalist’s toolkit, it’s never too late to start using it. Plenty of esteemed writers and journalists came late to the Twitter party and have adapted to it admirably.
So rest easy, journalists. Unless you gain legitimate joy or insight from using a tech product, you don’t have to use it to write about it. Hell, we still cover Uber exhaustively, even though most of our reporters have deleted its app in protest after the company suggested launching a smear campaign against our boss. In fact, I think tech journalism would be much healthier if reporters stopped spending so much time trying to be cool and young, and instead focused on providing original insight on these companies and shining a light on corruption.
But what do I know. At 30, I’m just an out-of-touch old man.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]