How Lapse Is Trying to Become the Anti-Instagram

Screenshots from the photo sharing app Lapse, which is gaining in popularity. Credit - Lapse

Ever since Instagram changed its algorithm last year to prioritize short-form TikTok-like videos, a slew of new apps have tried to position themselves as the inheritor of Instagram’s original mission: sharing photos with friends. BeReal, Grainery and Glass have all reached varying levels of success in their attempts to become visual social hubs.

Now comes another challenger: Lapse. The U.K.-based app essentially turns your phone into a disposable camera, and then lets you share those often-grainy photos hours later with small groups of friends. On Nov. 13, Lapse ranked third on the Apple App Store’s chart for free iPhone apps in the U.S., outpacing TikTok and Google. It also topped the App Store charts in the photo and video category.

As Instagram and TikTok incentivize users to grow their followings and nab ad deals, Lapse has found success in taking the opposite path: towards a potentially more authentic, non-gamified, experience between people who actually know and like each other. Even major influencers who have benefited from Instagram, like Kylie Jenner, have demanded this sort of change: “Stop trying to be TikTok,” she wrote to Instagram last year in a post. “I just want to see cute photos of my friends.”

But whether this formula can cultivate a sustainable business model for Lapse and other similar apps remains to be seen. Lapse has already received criticism for its growth tactics, which force new users to invite new friends onto the platform before they can take any photos.

“There’s a feeling in the air that the follower-followee dynamic of social media just doesn’t work,” says Harper Reed, an entrepreneur and technologist. “So people have been focusing on shrinking who they follow to get back to the small group. But I think Lapse is using a completely predatory growth strategy.”

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Lapse’s first function is a point-and-shoot camera, modeled after disposable film cameras. You can’t zoom in or add a filter. After you take a photo, it “processes” in a “dark room” for several hours. The photos that eventually emerge can’t be edited at all. Like actual film photos, these are often washed out and grainy.

But many people prefer that aesthetic, which appeals to a sense of nostalgia and makes the photos feel more instantly classic. “It’s kind of become my main camera tool, which is kind of ridiculous, because it’s only been like a month,” says Luke Yun, a Los Angeles-based freelance content director. “But whenever I want to take a good shot and I know Lapse will do a good job, I'll just take it out and use it.”

Lapse also took advantage of a new iPhone feature rolled out last year, which allows users to add widgets directly on their lock screen. Users can now access Lapse’s camera with just one phone tap.

Other camera apps, like Huji, offer a similar film-like photo quality. What sets Lapse apart is its social media element. Once the photos “develop,” you can choose to either keep them private or share them with your friends. The shared photos then show up on your friends’ feeds.There are no “likes” on the app; only emoji reactions and comments.

“A big priority is that we didn’t want to create this sense of competition on the platform,” says Lapse co-founder Ben Silvertown, who created the app in 2021 with his brother Dan. “Existing social networks have created this environment that’s so high pressure.”

The app’s comparative casualness is one of the reasons that Abbie Flake, a photographer and college student at the University of Central Arkansas, has continued to use the app since she downloaded it in September. She uses it mostly to share memories with a specific group of friends. “It takes away some of the Photoshop or overprocessing you can see on some other social media sites, which gives you a false perception of people,” she says. “Lapse gives me more of a wholesome feeling where it’s less about gaining attention or status, and more about the actual memories.”

As much as Lapse has thrived in the last couple months, it has also turned some prospective users off due to its aggressive promotional tactics. Anyone who wants to join must give the app access to their contacts, and then invite five of their friends who are not already on the app. In those invites, Lapse autofills text messages with enthusiastic language about Lapse, such as “how cute is this.”

Dan Silvertown acknowledged the criticism, and said the company was considering removing the requirement, even if it hurts the company’s raw download numbers. “If we do take a hit in the short term on downloads or a loss of position on the App Store, we would be comfortable with that, if it allows us to build a better product in the longer term that users love even more,” he says.

Lapse’s next challenge will be to forge a lasting business model. The company was buoyed in 2021 by an $11 million funding round; it is currently completely free for users and does not earn revenue. Other photo apps, like Dispo and BeReal, slowed in growth after an initially explosive growth phase. And Dan Silvertown has said in previous interviews that he wants Lapse to avoid ad-based monetization models entirely.

Dan Silvertown told TIME that the app might implement “something along the lines of paid features” in the future. “But it’s not a priority for right now,” he says . “We’ve got some amazing investors who are aligned with us in the fact that the number one priority for the moment should be building an amazing product and getting it out to as many people as we can.”

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