Why Socialcam Will Fail*

* Yes, the title of this post is blatant linkbait. But it’s a serious topic. Over the past few days, I mentioned the topic of my post to a number of smart people in the industry, who all had the same reaction: “I don’t get Socialcam, and I want to read that post.” So at the risk of sounding like a 2,000 year old man, here’s why Socialcam will fail.

Socialcam is the new hotness right now. As the “video Instagram,” it taps into the zeitgeist, and as a YC graduate, its investors include a who’s who of people who are way more successful than I, including the Miami Heat’s Shane Battier, who is no doubt better at defending the pick-and-roll than me.

Moreover, it’s founders are an experienced and canny bunch. The Justin.tv team has proven their ability to build a scalable and innovative service, and the site makes YouTube look oh so 2006.

So why do I think Socialcam will fail? Ask Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan’s famous statement, “The medium is the message” is pretty darn confusing (McLuhan didn’t help matters by making endless puns about the phrase, including titling one of his books, “The Medium is the Massage“). Stated more simply, the nature of the medium itself conveys information. TV and newspapers are different, even if used to tell the “same” story.

The challenge Socialcam faces boils down to the differences between text, images, audio, and video.

Ultimately, text, images, audio, and video are the four different media that can be transmitted electronically (taste, smell, and touch aren’t easily broadcast…though if you’ve got a way to do so practically, reach out and touch me!).

Twitter represents the microbroadcasting of text–140 characters to be precise–and it has been wildly successful. Ultimately, all other microbroadcasting apps are derivatives of Twitter, which is why I think it’s more accurate to describe Socialcam as Video Twitter rather than Instagram for Video.

Instagram is Twitter for images, and it too has been successful, though it is still in its early days (Instagram is at 50 million users, Twitter at 500 million). It also piggybacked on top of Twitter/Facebook for distributing its images.

That leaves Audio Twitter and Video Twitter as potential applications.

The problem is that text and images act totally differently than audio and video. The first two media are static and visual. This makes them easy to scan, especially given Twitter’s 140 character limit.

Side note:
I could actually argue that the 140 character limit (which was originally an artifact of transmitting via SMS) is actually the main force behind Twitter’s success. This limit prevented people from seeing Twitter as “writing” (which is the case with blogs) and made it possible for people to easily scan their Twitter firehose. Longer posts simply wouldn’t work. Tumblr is powerful, but it’s no Twitter.

In contrast, both audio and video are continuous and auditory (and in the case of video, visual). This means that it takes are longer to consume, and it’s impossible to scan easily.

I can scan 100 Twitter posts in about 30 seconds. The same holds true for images. In fact, I’m used to scanning images that way given how we store images in galleries.

In 30 seconds, I can probably watch/listen to a single video or audio post. And while I can scan the still images for videos on Socialcam.com, about 75% of them are of a person facing the camera–I don’t get a lot of useful information.

Even if I do manage to find what I’m looking for and watch a Socialcam video, these 30-second snippets don’t convey much. Twitter works because of the links–the tweets are natural teasers for whatever is being shared. Instagram works because we enjoy viewing a series of photos (think of the classic slideshow). But what am I supposed to take away from a 30-second video?

In the end, I feel like Video Twitter offers too poor a signal-to-noise ratio to be practical. And unlike live video stream a la Justin.tv (or, ahem, Ustream), there’s no immediacy or interactivity to produce an addictive experience.

This isn’t to say that 30-second snippets can’t be powerful. In fact, even a four-second audio clip can provide a blast of nostalgia. But unlike premium content like classic movie quotes (or video game noises) I doubt that user-generated 30-second videos will represent a compelling experience. In fact, that’s exactly what Loic Le Meur proved in 2008 with the original Seesmic, which actually described itself as a Video Twitter.

In Socialcam’s defense, it seems to have gotten far more traction than the original Seesmic, and ranks highly in Apple’s App Store (and gets a decent 4-star rating as well). It may be that I’m simply out of touch, just like all the people who told me in 2007 that live streaming would never catch on. “How is this different from webcams?” skeptics would ask. The difference, I pointed out, lay with the audience, not the technology. YouTube and blogs had created a world of content creators whose ego would feed off the intimacy of live broadcasts.

It may be that by making video watching more social, Socialcam will be able to supersede YouTube. Certainly its social networking structure makes more sense than YouTube’s underused “channels”. But I keep coming back to McLuhan.

The medium is the message. And ultimately, I believe the message is that Video Twitter simply doesn’t work.

P.S. While this post focuses on Socialcam, the same arguments apply to its arch-rival, Viddy. I don’t want them to feel left out, though I suppose their rumored $30 million Series B on a $400 million post will help assuage the sting.

P.P.S. The inspiration for this post came from Hunter Walk’s take on Socialcam. As Hunter notes, he’s inherently biased because of his role at YouTube, but I think he makes some good points, and having known him for years, I have confidence in his intellectual honesty.

P.P.P.S. I ran across one strange thing while investigating Socialcam. According to Alexa, Socialcam has triple the daily reach of its parent, Justin.tv, and ranks 498 overall in the US market. But when I went to Google’s Ad Planner, Socialcam remains a tiddler, with about 35,000 daily users to Justin.TV’s 1,100,000. It may be that Alexa’s data is more current than Google’s, but the result is still puzzling. Perhaps wiser heads than mine can provide a good explanation.

Apparently the founders of SocialCam agreed with my reasoning. They just sold their “superhot” startup to Autodesk for $60 million.

Now don’t get me wrong, $60 million is a good amount of money. The founders will do well, and I’m pretty sure that the investors will also make money. Digg’s investors *wish* they could sell their company for $60 million. But it’s a far cry from Instagram’s $1.2 billion.

It’s pretty clear that the folks involved decided that the risks of growing the business far outweighed the potential reward.

5 thoughts on “Why Socialcam Will Fail*

  1. I like Cinegram and Flixel (Animated Gif Twitter) for that reason…

    They are easily scannable, like photos and text, but have some of the continuity of video.

  2. I don't use it so can't comment on it directly but.
    You main criticism is that they are hard to scan?
    I haven't seen solutions of this problem for audio but I seen for video.
    I seen some sites that use a slideshow on thumbnail rollover to show 10 instead of 1 of thumbnails for quick scanning. Another good example is what YouTube started to do, thumbnails show up on timeline when you roll over it. This allows to scan video very quickly and jump top points of interest.

    So my question here is, can it be solved? Like SoundCloud shows audio signal which though is inefficient way to scan but still shows how "noisy" song is + it allows people to leave comments at particular places, imagine tagging timeline with keywords like "drums here" "solo!!!" "i love lyrics here". Not good enough but good no?

    I think there is plenty of opportunity and ways to experiment and improve that there.

  3. It feels like your analysis is a well structured version of "I don't get it." And, btw with SocialCam, *I* don't get it either, but I've found that's a dangerous forecasting strategy.

    Think of how foreign twitter felt originally. Or more recently, Pintrest. It could be that SocialCam isn't the Video Twitter or the Video Instagram, but merely The SocialCam. It is a medium and message with which you and I are as yet unfamiliar.

    SocialCam is in my view more akin to Zynga or Pintrest, than Instagram or Twitter. The former got insane growth purely from Facebook's social graph. Instagram obstinately rejects the web, it's network is largely self-generated, and it's awesome for it. Twitter's graph was of course original.

    Maybe in that reliance, SocialCam is doomed to flash-in-the-pan status. Maybe they get milked by facebook the way Zynga did. I suppose a curse to be as successful as Zynga wouldn't be so bad…

  4. Michael,

    I remember when Twitter first came out. I wasn't an early adopter, but I had tons of friends who used it. Plus, certain use cases (e.g. celebrities) emerged pretty quickly.

    With Zynga, it was apparent that people were highly addicted–I could tell just by all the Mafia Wars alerts I saw from Facebook.

    The same can be said of Foursquare, etc.

    I don't see any signs of Socialcam adoption by anyone I know. And I'm not just some old guy who only has uncool friends.

    Maybe I'm wrong, and people will point at the post in the future and say, "Ha ha," but I'd buy into the Socialcam phenomenon more if I saw some actual usage.

    Finally, it may be that Socialcam can be successful…but it won't be successful because it is the Video Instagram.

    P.S. In the case of Pinterest, I've never doubted its usefulness. Pinterest critics have clearly never picked up a women's magazine. Images are content. Lucky is a magazine that has nothing but ads, and people pay for subscriptions.

  5. I'm a bit late to to the game for comments but I've been checking out the new social video apps and came across this post.

    I've played around with the apps and while they're definitely today not as useful as they will become it's pretty clear that social video is here to stay.

    I know a couple of the Socialcam seed investors and from a cash perspective they will be sorry that they sold for $60m

    Wonderwhy is correct, there are available technologies to enable video to make as easy to consume as text and photos.

    Video format works very well for some content. Obvious example – music. Up and coming example – sports.

    With recent adoption of mobile devices with video we're only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of users and technology.

    User content is critical, dumping in videos from YouTube is obnoxious. What works very well and makes social video very useful is when popular posters/account use a combination of personal videos and professional videos.


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