Snapchat, Augmented Reality, and Transactional Affordances
conference contributionposted on 2021-10-28, 03:07 authored by Michael Daubs, Vincent Manzerolle
This paper examines the transactional features on the popular mobile social media app Snapchat to describe how mobile social media act as an interface between culture and commerce. In particular, we examine Snapchat’s extensive Augmented Reality (AR) features which its parent company, Snap, Inc., has been developing and investing in heavily since 2014. Snapchat Lenses, an in-app feature which layers graphics and designs over real-world objects when viewed through a smartphone’s camera, are the most popular and visible of these AR experiences. While Lenses are often associated with features that augment users’ faces in their photos by overlaying graphics through facial tracking, other AR features on Snapchat can identify and interact with object and environments. These Lenses power a feature called “Snapchat Scan” which, as we detail, makes it easier to incorporate e-commerce opportunities into the app, particularly since Snap initiated a partnership with online retail giant Amazon in 2018. For example, using Snapchat Scan, users can point their smartphone camera at any object or barcode and the app, using Amazon’s ‘machine vision tech’, will identify the item and, if available, both layer product information and pricing over the object and allow the user to purchase it from Amazon—all without leaving the Snapchat app. Incorporating Bratton’s (2014) conceptualisation of the “app as interface” as a framework, we argue that Snapchat Lenses ultimately make it possible to turn any environment or, crucially, any social interaction into a advertising or sales opportunity in a way that relies less on the “performative authenticity” of social media influencers (SMIs) popular on apps such as Instagram and more on the “native” authenticity of the user’s environmental and interpersonal interactions. We situate this interface analysis within a larger political economic context, informed by industry data and corporate communications, to demonstrate how mobile social media platforms such as Snapchat play a unique role in monetizing personal data and context awareness through their development of “transactional affordances”, a term we develop to understand new features that allow users to connect to economic exchange. We conclude by arguing that the contextual commerce these phenomena entail constitute the basis for a broader “transactional culture” in which digital social media and related content will increasingly come with a “buy now” feature.