Snow is tremendous fun. The Snapchat knockoff features hundreds of animated stickers—masks and distortions that map onto users’ faces with facial-recognition software—that allow people to be a whole host of different selves, sharing photos and videos directly with friends. And yet in some respects the app, which has an estimated 20 million downloads in China, shouldn’t even exist here.
Snow launched in Korea in September last year, extending to most other countries in November before being rolled out in China, the Galapagos Island of the Internet, in January 2016. It was created by Camp Mobile, a subsidiary of Naver, most famous for the chat app Line. Both Snapchat and Line are blocked in China, but for some reason Snow is not. Enthusiastic reviews of the app in Chinese even include the observation that users don’t need to bind it to their cell-phone number, a common requirement for social media in China, where the government keeps close tabs on citizens’ interactions online.
Now, as the app takes off, Snow’s developers are rethinking its positioning in the People’s Republic.
To get a sense of what the app currently does, Snow shares more in common with Snapchat than the first two letters of its name, which is short for both “Snap Now” and “Something Now” according to its makers. The interface is similar, photos and videos shared in chats disappear within 24 hours, and videos can be added to a feed of “Stories”. One of Snapchat’s most famous animated stickers allows users to vomit rainbows. Snow lets you breathe rainbows.
Given the similarities, it’s interesting to note where Snow, whose primary audience is in Asia, differs from Snapchat. Firstly, it’s intuitive. There are no hidden features designed to befuddle anyone over 30, keeping it cool by making it exclusive. And while Snapchat has a limit of just 10 different video animations available at any one time, Snow is more capacious, the way Asian apps such as WeChat often are.
“Right now there are over 700 animated stickers, in fact almost 800,” says a spokesperson for Snow. “Every day we add two or more stickers, and they’re all available for download.”
|This article is part of the Cultural Radar series|
Zhao Mengsha, a user from Beijing, says “Snow is updated almost every day! China has a lot of shanzhai [knockoff] apps like FaceU that are almost the same, but I uninstalled them a long time ago. There are fewer tools and they’re not as high quality as Snow.”
Snow also has a sense of humour that’s better calibrated to Asian sensibilities than Snapchat. There’s a watermelon skin helmet, for instance, and sprouts that grow out of people’s hair, both of which were inspired by Chinese memes.
Wang Lin, another Chinese Snow user, says, “I like how it can make me and my friends all look good or all look gross.” One of her favourite animated stickers is a woman with small, narrow eyes, a wide, lurid pink mouth and brown hair blowing in the wind. Were Snapchat to release such a filter it would look racist. For Chinese users, it’s a welcome break from having to look pretty.
Ultimately, however, the biggest difference between Snow and Snapchat will arrive later this year, when the app removes messaging capabilities for its China users.
“We plan to get rid of the messaging function in China,” Snow says. “We’re releasing a new app in the local android app stores called ‘Snow Camera’ or ‘Snow 相机’. Snow will be removed from iOS in China too. Right now, you can still download both apps separately.”
“China is a very different, unique country. We have to change the app if we want to survive in China,” a Snow spokesperson says.
While removing messaging would seem to hobble Snow, its developers are optimistic about its future in China, noting that people have already been using Snow to create photos and videos but prefer to share them on WeChat and Weibo, where they have more friends and followers. It’s also a safer strategy than trying to compete as a messaging app in a market where international apps Twitter, Facebook, Line and Snapchat have all been blocked.
|Sam Gaskin, cultural content editor, Flamingo Shanghai.|