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Instagram was once a place to share Starbucks cups and high-contrast pet photos. After Facebook acquired it in 2012, it has turned into a competition of getting as many likes as possible (using the same formula over and over: post the best highly-curated, edited photos with the funniest captions). More recently, it's essentially become a shopping mall, with brands falling over themselves to be heard through the noise. Doing something "for the gram" — scaling buildings, posting the same cringe picture over and over — became the norm. Pop-up museums litter cities with photo ops for posts; "camera eats first"; everything can be a cute Instagram story; everything is content.
And to be clear, Dispo — a buzzy new photography app that just came out of beta — is still a place for content. It probably isn't going to fix our collective online brains and their inclination to share everything about our private lives with others online. It's still an app, and it's still social media, and it encourages documenting your life. But it runs pretty differently than any other image-sharing app out there. And that might be what helps it stand out in an oversaturated market of social networking apps.
Dispo, at its core, is a picture-taking app. It's the brainchild of internet darling David Dobrik, who noticed that his friends loved to bring disposable cameras to parties, develop the pictures and share them afterward. So he created David's Disposable, a free mobile app that functions like a disposable camera: You take a picture and wait a day to see how it turned out. The free, ad-supported app launched in 2019, offering a $1 premium subscription that removed ads. Its relaunch, which includes the highly anticipated feature of community rolls, is no longer in beta but remains invite-only.
The relaunched app has a new name and a team of all-star developers, including alumni from Adobe, Byte, Raya and more. Dispo also got a buy-in from Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian: It raised $4 million in October 2020, and raised $20 million in series A funding at a valuation of about $200 million, according to Axios. Dispo's TestFlight reached capacity after just a few days, largely thanks to a massive surge in downloads from Japan — more than 5,000 in an hour — over its launch weekend.
Dispo works like a disposable camera. Daily at 9 a.m., users log on to see their pictures from the day before after they get "developed." They can send pictures to their own library, or add them to "community rolls," which is where most of the social interactions happen. Anyone can create a community roll and add collaborators, and anyone can follow a community roll (even without following the users themselves).
CEO Daniel Liss believes one of the differentiating factors for Dispo, in the broader social media landscape, is that it isn't a social app — it's a photography app. "Other apps use photos, but they're about shopping or messaging or entertainment," he told Protocol. To him, Dispo is more about "experiencing photography with friends." According to some of the early users, though, experiencing photography with friends and strangers alike is the social aspect that drew them to the app in the first place.
The early users who spoke to Protocol mentioned a huge variety in the kind of community rolls they've come across: one for pasta photos, called "Impasta Syndrome"; one for pictures of socks; one for thrifting. One tester, Amanda Luke, started her own community roll called "Confession Booth," where users could write out a confession ("I wish I were more confident") and snap a photo of it to add to the collection. "I have found almost immediately the community at Dispo so supportive and creative," Luke told Protocol. "You don't have to put on a perfect facade."
So far "everyone's using it as intended," said Rob Focht, a UX designer out of Philadelphia. He chalks this up to the fact that many early users felt a sense of responsibility, and because those who beta tested it — tech folks, UX researchers, community managers, the chronically online — felt ready for a break from the way social media currently operates. Many of the people who spoke to Protocol for this story called Dispo "refreshing" when contrasted against other social media. They liked that it doesn't actively encourage Instagram-like behavior such as agonizing over filters and captions. "Do you ever think about how that speaks volumes on how social media managers just want a break from most social media?" said Amrith Shanbhag, who works as community lead at Opal, a digital mindfulness app.
One thing he loves about Dispo: no hashtags and no brands (yet). "There's no space for brands on Dispo, right now, really," Shanbhag said. "A social network without brands would be amazing, which I know is ironic coming from someone who runs brand accounts." There's no way to game Dispo (again: yet) in the way that social media marketers around the world have learned to game the rest of the social media landscape. A Dispo account flourishes only by interacting with others organically, by contributing to community rolls, by just being human. "It demands authenticity," Focht said.
Dispo's functional departure from current social media didn't happen by chance. "I think social media and software in general has become extremely clinical and transactional in recent years," said Michael Shillingburg, who works in UI, UX and 3D design at Dispo. "More than anything, I want to make Dispo a place that people inherently feel welcome before they even see a piece of content."
The app also doesn't display the number of accounts that a user is following, so there's no place for anyone to obsess over their "ratio," or the gap between how many accounts they follow versus follow them. (Accounts that have large followings without following many other accounts are said to have a "skinny" ratio. Instagram is a nightmare!)
The app is not wildly unlike VSCO, an artsy photo-editing app that reached the zeitgeist in 2019, where people can edit and share photos, and follow other users. But VSCO allows for photo uploads and endless editing options; with Dispo, users get one shot taken via the app, and that's it. The behaviors inspired by the apps are inverse: VSCO invites users to mull over hundreds of editing options, creating presets and editing for hours, whereas Dispo wants people to snap a photo and forget about it till the next day.
gotta give it up to the incomparable @shillingburger @boop for these aesthetics in @dispohq, like wow 👏👏😩😩 pic.twitter.com/9ryozuCKrw
— Devon Ko (@devonko_) February 13, 2021
It's also tempting to liken Dispo to Instagram because the apps are so fundamentally and functionally different, but community rolls act kind of like Instagram's Close Friends list on steroids. You can post different pictures to different audiences because of the community roll feature, in the same way that most Instagram users wouldn't post most of the mundane (or… wild!) things they post to their Close Friends list to their broader story or a normal grid post. Having a specific audience for certain photos allows people to display different parts of their personality within the app, without having every single photo tied to their everlasting online presence.
Diana Morgan, a community manager at an enterprise software company, said she uses a private Instagram account because she's "not really looking to be consumed" digitally by people who know her professionally. On Dispo, she's able to show a different persona, too. "I'm a huge supporter of pseudonymity, and I think Dispo also encourages that in certain aspects," Morgan said. "It's not about you as a person, or as a brand, it's about the rolls, and about people coming together and wanting to share their versions of an experience."
The functionality still isn't all there: Early users mostly use Twitter, whether through big direct message groups or tweets calling for collaborators for rolls, to communicate with each other. One twitter DM group filled up and was migrated to Slack. There's no direct message feature in Dispo yet; if you want to talk to someone within the app, you can leave a comment.
The delay in developing photos lends itself well to the concept of content moderation. Dispo does AI analysis on the photos for anything blatantly terrible or inappropriate, and hopes to assemble a larger moderation team in the future, Shillingburg told Protocol. It's also got the benefit of a social network not built around going viral. "The app structure inherently promotes more … wholesome interaction," Shillingburg said.
We're nearing a second decade of life lived online, life that's being documented in real time, and it's kind of a big thing to think that one app could change the way we've been programmed to use social media. "What I found fascinating was the delayed gratification, how you're able to get the photos," Morgan said. "It brings us back to being in the moment."
Dispo is looking good right now, somewhat because early adopters feel a sense of responsibility to use the app as intended. But people can be crazy and self-centered, and how long can a wholesome social network last, no matter how well-built it is? Dispo is about to find out.
Update: This story was updated on February 24 to include new information about Dispo's valuation.
Jane Seidel is Protocol's social media manager. She was previously a platform producer at The Wall Street Journal, creating mobile content and crafting alert strategy. Prior to that, she worked in audience development at WSJ and on digital editorial at NBC Universal. She lives in Brooklyn.