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May 24, 2023, 2:37 p.m.
Audience & Social

How Seen’s mobile journalism reaches 7 million people across platforms

“Three years ago, I would have said that every platform is super different from the others. Now they’ve all become quite similar.”

Francesco Zaffarano is a digital journalist and senior audience editor at Devex. A version of this interview first appeared in his Substack, Mapping Journalism on Social Platforms — subscribe here.

For this issue, I spoke with Seen‘s co-founder, Yusuf Omar. He was previously a CNN senior social media reporter on Snapchat and mobile editor at the Hindustan Times in India. [Ed. note: You can also watch Omar’s keynote from this year’s International Symposium on Online Journalism here.]

Francesco Zaffarano: Can you describe Seen to someone who knows nothing about it?

Yusuf Omar: Seen uses augmented reality to turn citizens into journalists. We create amazing AR experiences where people can open up their mobile cameras and immerse themselves in the story they’re trying to tell. So, if they are in Ethiopia right now and experiencing severe droughts, they can use their mobile camera to create effects to show what a drought looks like.

People use these tools to create videos they can submit to us, and then we have a team of amazing journalists — we have over 55 staff — who curates and package those videos into shows.

We have 12 shows, covering mental health, physical health, entrepreneurship, survivors of domestic violence and gun violence, sex education, and more.

A lot of people watch those shows. We have seven million subscribers to our shows across platforms. Most of them are 13- to 24-year-olds, primarily in the U.S. — mainly young women.

This is what Seen is today: a publisher with a unique set of tools that help people tell stories. But in the future, Seen wants to be something quite different.

Zaffarano: Can you tell me more about that?

Omar: We believe that by 2030, everybody who’s reading this — myself and you included — will be wearing smart glasses. I know Google Glass was early and didn’t quite pan out, but mobile phones suck and make people feel completely disconnected from the world. We’re going to move to a world where we’re wearing smart glasses, and in that world, Seen is trying to become the most immersive storytelling company.

Nobody has yet figured out what journalism looks like when you start to overlay it onto the world. But we’re certainly trying to work it out, and we’re making some important investments in that space. For example, we’ve done projects where you can look at colonial statues and they come to life, and you have generals saying, “I was amazing,” while their horses fact-check them, but they come to life with your phone with the glasses. And we’ve done projects in Boston where you can walk around and see history overlaid onto the city, and you hear poets narrate it.

Today, in 2023, we’re all about helping people feel seen through the stories that they tell about themselves. But by 2030, it will be more about stories overlaid onto the world. It might sound like two completely separate organizations or visions, right? But they’re incredibly connected. I think immersive storytelling through wearables can create more empathy and understanding because you can see the world through other people’s perspectives. More importantly, the augmented reality tools that we are building to help people tell their stories also work on the smart glasses. So it’s not like we are building for a future that doesn’t exist. We are building for mobile phones today, but that technology transitions to smart glasses.

Zaffarano: How did Seen start in the first place?

Omar: When I was 21, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I wanted to cover wars and natural disasters. But people like me are not seen on TV, right? There’s a critical lack of diversity in the media landscape. When I went to media organizations saying I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and travel, I was told there was no budget. So, I started hitchhiking from South Africa to Syria, and I started telling stories using my phone, and I ended up becoming a mojo — a mobile journalist.

I could shoot and edit on the phone, and that kind of got me thinking about the development and NGO sector and those organizations that need to make videos…but why is video so prohibitively expensive and difficult to make?

And then we thought, there are like 6.8 billion phones around the world, and they’ve also got editing apps. Imagine if those folks could tell stories through Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and other platforms. The fundamental issue is that they don’t know how to tell a story, so my co-founder Sumaiya Omar and I traveled worldwide and trained 20,000 people in 140 countries. [Ed. note: Some of these trainings have taken place as MOOCs.]

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was just the two of us, but we had to hire 105 staff to train that many people. They managed shot lists, scripts, and storyboards, and by this stage, we were working with NGOs like World Vision, Plan International, the United Nations, and Oxfam. But we thought there’s got to be a better way to help people tell stories. So, we started experimenting with augmented reality.

At first, we used filters to disguise the faces of rape survivors while enabling them to tell their stories. And that’s when we realized this is a seriously powerful tool that we can use to do really interesting stories. So we thought, what if you could make high-quality videos with no cost without having to get a film crew, without having to buy a single camera? And what if those videos performed better than the high-production value stuff?

That’s why we started building augmented reality tools to help people tell their stories. For example, you have filters and lenses that give you prompts for self-interviews, directions to shoot a video like a professional, and help you tell stories that happened in spaces you don’t have access to — all by using immersive AR lenses.

Zaffarano: What kind of stories are you telling with Seen?

Omar: We started out focused on solutions-based and constructive journalism. We’ve now shifted to trying to build the world’s biggest human experience library. We recognize that there are incredible human experiences out there, and traditional media struggle to get access to them because they lack diversity. But if people can share their experiences, they can help create positive change in somebody else’s life. If you have experienced and survived violence, sharing that story can help positively impact somebody else. If you are fighting against cancer, sharing how you deal with that can help positively impact somebody else.

Zaffarano: What is your main social platform? And where else are you trying to expand?

Omar: The core is Snapchat, where we started publishing the tools we build and where we publish our shows. But now we are diversifying because we don’t want to depend on one platform for your revenues. You don’t want to build your house on somebody else’s land. So, for example, we now have 1.2 million followers on Facebook, and we have accounts on Instagram and YouTube, too.

Zaffarano: Why did you start with Snapchat?

Omar: I have been obsessed with Snapchat for quite a long time, and they’ve also invested in the company. They still own 6% of the company. If you imagine a hand of cards you need to hold to be a huge competitor in the future of computing, I think they have the royal flush.

Suppose you believe that the future of computing is moving from the keyboard to the camera as the primary input technology. In that case, they’re so well-positioned: they’ve got a great operating system around the camera, great hardware in terms of wearables, and great trust from their audience. Trust and privacy are huge things.

I also think that if you’re a small organization like us, you must focus. You can only do so many things. You can’t think you will have a million followers on YouTube, Facebook, and all the other platforms. Now we’re starting to play that game and diversify the platforms. But, initially, you have to do one thing really well.

Zaffarano: How do you plan to expand to other platforms now?

Omar: If our assumptions are correct that the future of the internet will be around the camera, we will translate very well across platforms. We’re already building AR filters on Instagram and other platforms.

It’s also exciting that we are doing very well on platforms other than Snapchat without much effort. We didn’t give a lot of love to Facebook. We just kind of published Snapchat shows on Facebook, and then we looked back, and suddenly we’ve got over a million subscribers, and we started generating something like $50,000 a month just from ad revenue.

If you asked me this question three years ago, I would have said that every platform is super different from the others. Now, they’ve all become quite similar. In terms of content, they’re all really focused on short-form, vertical video. So, they’ve all galvanized around the same format, making it incredibly easy to go viral across platforms now.

Zaffarano: How do you measure success?

Omar: Everyone talks about what engagement means for publishers. Is it views, likes, comments, or shares? For us, the best engagement is when your audience watches a piece of content about climate change and then opens their camera and creates a piece of content about climate change. That’s the best kind of engagement we can ask for.

We can see how many people are recording using our filters. Since 2020, our lenses have been used 83 million times. We can also see if they submit that content to Instagram Reels or Snapchat Spotlight. And once we have all these people producing content, we can select those we find interesting to make an episode of our show.

Zaffarano: How do you measure impact instead?

Omar: It’s about showing people a different perspective and challenging their understanding of the world. That’s impact for me. I strive for that, and one of the challenges we have today is I worry that we found ourselves in one left-leaning liberal corner of the internet. And if our mandate is really to create a more diverse, understanding, and empathetic world, we’ve got to tap into the other side.

Zaffarano: Can you tell me more about how you use user-generated content?

Omar: We don’t simply curate user-generated content. We can see all the content people create using our filters and lenses, and then we identify the most interesting and get in touch. At that point, we create a unique series of filters and experiences for that individual to help them tell their story at its best.

That’s how, for example, we’ve been able to help the humanitarian organization Plan International create three-minute videos with kids in 43 different countries. That happened during Covid — they couldn’t send out a crew, the media industry was figuring out how to deal with that situation, and we were very well-positioned to help them reach those kids in so many countries.

Covid pushed the industry into mobile journalism and shooting with phones, and I think that’s a one-way trajectory. I don’t think we’re going back. They realized those raw, real intimate, relatable stories were better. It resonated with audiences more. It got more impact, and people trusted it more. Especially now that we are entering this world of artificial intelligence and generative video, I think people crave real and authentic storytelling.

Zaffarano: What’s the project you worked on for Seen that you are most proud of?

Omar: On storytelling, some of the coverage we did around Covid was truly unique. We had such beautiful stories. We had this Muslim funeral conductor and grave digger in New York City telling us a story in the grave six feet under digging, crying, and talking about dealing with all those deaths and all that he witnessed. I was just so proud of how we were able to move into covering covid and finding a unique way into it.

Same with Ukraine. After the Russian invasion started and everyone was focusing on what Putin was saying and what the U.S. was saying, there were all those stories of black African people trying to leave Ukraine and being denied entry into Poland. We had the perspective of those people, selfie-style making their way and getting refused entry.

We had stories, not from some presenter telling you that people in Ukraine were living underground, but from people telling you their experience of living in bunkers and basements and places like train stations.

On filters and lenses, one of my favorite projects is an effect on Spectacles we built for the majority of Muslims around the world who don’t speak Arabic. There are many Muslims who come from non-Arabic-speaking countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, and we built an effect that allows you to see the Quran in English. And that’s just a powerful tool for utility for people to understand their religion better.

But also, when my wife was pregnant, we overlaid the baby’s development onto her body using AR so we could see how the baby grew weekly.

Zaffarano: How many people work at Seen today?

Omar: We realized that the old model pre-AR of manually training people — where we were writing storyboards, scripts, and shot lists — was not scalable. Since we’ve been able to deploy these tools, we have been able to double the amount of content that we produce with half the headcount. In 2022 we were doing 500 videos a year with 105 staff. In 2023, we are now at 55 staff and do over a thousand videos a year. If you build the right tech and right tools, you can scale what I’d call premium quality user-generated content without having to increase your headcount.

Zaffarano: How are you making money?

Omar: Our revenue streams are quite diverse. Advertisement is the main one: We publish stories on Snapchat and Facebook, and there are ads in between those stories that are placed by the platforms, and we get a percentage of that revenue.

But we are trying to move away from ads being the primary business because it’s really risky. Algorithms change, platforms change, and we’re very exposed. We’re focusing our efforts on our brand studio and specifically working with organizations creating positive change. We’re not interested in selling cars or underpants or some useless stuff. We’re storytellers and journalists at the end of the day. We found a great market fit with charities. We also get revenues from training and public speaking.

We are cash flow positive, which means we earn more than we spend, and I’m really excited about that.

Zaffarano: How is traditional media reacting to what you do?

Omar: They’re starting to understand the validity and value of what we’re trying to do here. They no longer see us as a threat because they are starting to see us as journalists who are backing people with mobile phones who tell their own stories, which is ultimately what sources do.

The two main things traditional journalists try to understand from us are how to verify and fact-check at scale, and if there is some interesting technology that we’re working on right now to validate kind of the process of the work we do.

We hold ourselves to the same ethical standards as somebody publishing a newspaper or putting up a TV piece. We don’t take it lightly.

Traditional organizations are also surprised we share everything about what we do. Sometimes people think their idea is so good that they don’t want to share it. But if your idea is so simple that you can tell it to somebody, and they can listen to it and do it, It’s probably not a very good idea. So yeah, we over-share because I think we’re all in this together. And we need to share our ideas if we really want to create a more diverse media landscape that is more representative and features more voices, more angles, and more perspectives.

POSTED     May 24, 2023, 2:37 p.m.
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