In the early days of Snapchat, models viewed the fast-rising social app as a risk.
The disappearing photo network had been known at its start as a network for anatomy pics, to put it politely. Its first name, after all, was “Peekaboo.” Models and photographers hadn’t found a safe spot on the social network yet.
“If you were an Insta-model, you weren’t on Snapchat,” says Billy Hawkins co-founder and CEO of Arsenic. “If you were like a model with a million adoring fans, many of them male, that wasn’t the most comfortable space.”
That changed when Snapchat introduced public stories, and now many models are finding their own slice of fame on the social network — largely thanks to Arsenic.
The media powerhouse morphed from a side project of Hawkins and Amanda Micallef to a venture-backed business in the last year. Women wanting to feel sexy in their own way, whether that’s lounging by a pool or buying candy at a grocery store, are crowdsourced to “take over” the account and post pictures.
The real, raw, and edgy nature of the content has more than half a million people tuning into it every single day on Snapchat. Arsenic’s Instagram account already has double the followers of Maxim Magazine’s.
While most people use Snapchat just to send snapshots of their life to friends, Arsenic has been at the forefront of experimenting with new ways to run a media company on an app where everything disappears 24 hours later.
Feeding the beast
Snapchat began as a way to send photos to friends, only to have them disappear immediately. In 2013, the company introduced Stories, where users can post photos or videos in succession in a place where all their friends on Snapchat can see it. While it originally meant sending a message to a list of friends one-by-one, the stories were more like broadcasting.
Arsenic decided to give it a shot.
A 19-year-old film student volunteering with Arsenic suggested they create an account, but soon it was just this woman complaining about traffic in L.A. or ranting about whatever was on her mind — ways many people use Snapchat right now.
It fit the platform, but didn’t fit Arsenic’s mission of a crowdsourced magazine where everyone had the power.
The next day, there was a photo shoot and Arsenic models filmed a little of the behind-the-scenes view, showing what it was like to be photographed from their point of view.
“People see the resultant pictures, but the idea that there is a place and you can be there seeing what these beautiful women are creating, you don’t get that kind of access,” Hawkins said.
The views doubled, but that didn’t mean it was an instant success.
Unlike Instagram, when people could upload photos whenever, Snapchat was live — and the photos would disappear.
That meant Snapchat needed fresh content every single day, which was tough as Arsenic was still mainly a hobby for its founders.
“24 hours later, no matter how much work you put into it, it’s gone,” Hawkins said. “We call it feeding the beast.”
Starting the takeovers
That’s when they started doing Snapchat takeovers. The then-all volunteer crew would put a call out on Instagram for someone to sign up, and then pick a candidate from the comments.
They kept it open to anyone. They didn’t want an “Arsenic Girl” to be a tightly defined body type or look like a Victoria’s Secret model or Playboy bunny.
“We embrace lots of types of women. It’s part of the reason that women engage with it,” Micallef said. “You don’t have to be blonde or six feet tall. It could be my next door neighbour. It could be my best friend.”
Arsenic was among the first to do these kinds of takeovers, they believe. It wasn’t like they were geniuses, Hawkins adds. They just didn’t know what else to do.
Soon, what had been one young woman blabbering about traffic became sexy snapshots of people’s lives, whether they were perusing the candy aisle at the gas station or laying out by the pool.
Most of what Arsenic is now calling “Snapshows” start with a hand-drawn logo and then a clip of an old TV show with the Snapchat or Instagram handle of whoever is about to come onto the show.
More recently, the company started trying rolling takeovers, where multiple hosts take over the account on the same day, one after the other. Arsenic asks the crowd in the Instagram comments if it’s going well, and if it’s not, the next person will get on.
It’s also experimenting with more programmed content. While getting a model to take over a Snapchat account for a day takes some effort, coordinating 40 people to broadcast the same thing is something new.
During a car wash in February, 40 people filmed their point of view of the scene. In the background, a luxury car rental brand paid to have their car be used as a prop for the men and women involved in the shoot. It’s a way of taking an event and getting millions of eyes on it in a way that’s not curated by Snapchat, but is unfiltered.
Beyond the takeovers
In January 2015, six weeks after launching on Snapchat, the videos were already garnering 60,000 views, larger than some small cable television shows.
“These were small cable channels obviously, but it did put this idea in our heads: could this become bigger than the television shows we grew up watching?” Micallef said.
So they started mimicking and adapting on what had once been staples of pop culture television. Arsenic created its own version of “MTV Cribs.” Their models have broadcast from behind-the-scenes at a concert or sat with Flo Rida in the studio.
They have organised game shows. They have had models want to do “Jackass”-style throwbacks to the old days of MTV. They tried a sex advice show “Kiss and Tell,” like the old Dr. Ruth programs, but that one didn’t respond well with the audience. That’s the nature of Snapchat — largely visual and quick check-ins, rather than listening to audio programming.
“You tuned in because you didn’t know what you would miss,” Micallef said.
With so many takeovers and different people on the account, making it a comfortable accepting space has remained a priority. Occasionally they have had to block bad actors for sending inappropriate pictures, but the community is generally more supportive or curious than disparaging, Hawkins argues.
More importantly, every idea they have tried has come from the Arsenic community. The mantra right off the bat was that no one tells anyone how they should look — it’s about what they want to do and what makes them comfortable, even if it’s considered sexy to others.
“We’re edgy and we get that. We believe that we have the opportunity where the edge can serve us well,” Hawkins said. “It’s cut through the noise. It’s been consistent with our belief. It’s enabled us to be uncompromising. We have no apologies.”