How SeeMail Takes On Instagram, And Fights The Decline Of Intimacy

How does a photosharing app inspired by old family photographs compete with you know who? By getting personal.

Ward Chandler is the founder of SeeMail, a photosharing app slightly less well known than its famous, Facebook-acquired competitor. First released last spring, a major update of the app should be forthcoming (pending Cupertino’s approval) next week. Fast Company caught up with Chandler to talk about defunct photographic techniques, the decline of intimacy, and why you should still give SeeMail a try, even though it’s not... okay, okay, enough about that other app, already!

FAST COMPANY: What’s SeeMail?

WARD CHANDLER: It’s a photosharing mobile app, currently for iOS, that lets you add voice to your photos.

You started developing it long before Instagram became a household name. What was your inspiration?

The inspiration was old family photographs, where you’d turn the photo over and see the story written on the back. That story makes a photo so much more meaningful. For instance there’s a photograph of my dad from when I was 12 years old, and it’s just a really wonderful picture, my favorite picture of my dad [above]. I found it, and on the back it said Jasper, Alberta, 1973. My dad passed away last year, so to know that he had his hands on that, and that it was important to him to take the time to write on it, is very moving.

I sometimes wonder if you can fully recapture the sense experience of a physical photograph in the digital world.

It’s important for us to try to build that intimacy and that kind of feel with SeeMail. One thing that sets us apart from other photosharing apps is the peer-to-peer way you can share photos with certain people directly. You can certainly share publicly if you want, but to create a SeeMail, record your voice, share it with one or two people, whether family or friends, is really great. When someone reaches out to you and says, "I saw this today, I was thinking of you, remember that time you were here?" — you can’t beat that. It’s not a physical photo, but it recaptures that intimacy of sharing and connecting directly with the other person.

How long of a recording can you include in the app? Do people mostly narrate the contents of the photo, or do they include other things, like music?

For the free version, the recording time is 11 seconds. There’s a paid upgrade where for 99 cents, you can unlock up to 33 seconds. The most obvious use is talk, but we’re seeing more and more ambient, environmental types of SeeMails capturing music at a concert, or the sounds of waves at the ocean, or church bells ringing—these types of things.

When Instagram got acquired, was it tough to see a competitor crowned like that?

Not at all. It was super exciting. I was thrilled to see the progression of that app. The social acceptance of what they built was a validation that we were on the right path. And our app’s way cooler. They built something very simple and put it out there. There are lots of apps that do what Instagram does—it’s just one of those things where it’s hard to pinpoint why Instagram and not one of the other few dozen or few hundred photo/filter sharing apps out there. But they’re good at what they do. Fifty million people can’t be wrong.

I assume your user base is smaller than that. Is that actually fitting, in a way, given SeeMail’s mission of photographic intimacy?

I have every confidence we’ll have as many users as Instagram, and probably more, since we have many business-to-consumer and business-to-business applications of the app that you could never think of doing with Instagram. But no matter how big the user base gets, we’ll want to keep the feeling that it’s small, that it’s personal, that it’s something coming from me to you. Years ago, there was just one thing you could do on a phone: talk. Somewhere along the line, the phone turned typewriter, and then a computer. I hope we’re part of a trend where you start to see voice come back to the phone—to get that context, feeling, and emotion you can’t get from texting or emailing.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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2 Comments

  • Adrian Salamunovic

    SeeMail should partner with CanvasPop to allow people to print their photos on canvas and then have the message transcribed on the back of the canvas. Good way to monetize all that great content. Just saying! :-)