VSCO CEO Joel Flory on Social-Media Metrics and the Summer’s Biggest Meme, the ‘VSCO Girl’

Photo: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Over the summer, the photo-editing app VSCO probably got more organic, word-of-mouth exposure than it’s received in its entire eight-year existence, all thanks to a meme: the “VSCO girl.” The definition is a little fuzzy, but broadly speaking, the VSCO girl is usually a teenage girl who wears oversized T-shirts, keeps her hair in a messy bun, is always applying lip gloss, carries a Hydro Flask everywhere, always has plenty of scrunchies on hand, reflexively drops phrases like “and I oop” to fill blank space in conversations, and laughs like this: “sksksksksksksksk.” If you are of an older cohort and still confused, think of the slightly “alt” girl in your class who still won class president in a landslide. Importantly, she uses VSCO a lot, applying the app’s signature heavily faded, retro filters to the many photos she takes of her friends and activities (the drainage pipes on the edge of suburban properties have never looked so beautiful and ethereal). A 21st-century update to the taxonomy of high-school social cliques, the VSCO girl became a main character in videos and posts across social platforms like TikTok and Twitter — boosting the eponymous app to an audience that likely hadn’t heard of it before.

VSCO, like the apps from which it received this summertime boost, is itself a social platform — but it differs in significant ways from its peers and rivals. It doesn’t display engagement metrics such as likes and follow counts, and it doesn’t make money from ads. Its money comes from a subscription product with plenty of flaw-wiping filters and photo tweaks. Earlier this week, the company released the results of a study about its Gen-Z users (no surprise: the study validates VSCO’s approach) that showed many of its young users reportedly deal with online-related anxiety. CEO Joel Flory sat down with Intelligencer to talk about what it all means.

So I guess, like, as a crash course for our readers: What is VSCO? Give me the elevator pitch.

VSCO’s a mobile app helps you take professional-quality photos on a mobile device, really focused on both premium high-end photo/video tools, but that are also accessible and easy to use on a mobile device. Kind of a real core piece of it is access to this community really driven around inspiration and education, that helps inspire you to create and share how you see the world.

The first time I heard about VSCO, it seemed like an add-on for Instagram. Did you take any cues from what they were doing?

No. Because initially we launched a desktop product that was for Lightroom and Photoshop. And I think the difference was, from the beginning, VSCO’s been about a direct relationship to the consumer, building a product that people are willing to pay for. Instead of creating a platform, which you’re broadcasting to the world, how you want them to see you, kind of putting your brand out there, VSCO’s has always been about the individual. Our mission is to help everybody fall in love with their own creativity. It’s a very journey of self. People say, “Other platforms are how I want the world to see me, VSCO’s the one safe space, how I can share how I see the world.” And so that was very intentional for us from the beginning. There’s very few places where we could share work that was kind of the in between, in the good, the bad, and what we’re trying now.

What is the balance between supplying professional-grade photo-editing tools to amateurs, and also pushing this “authenticity” thing?

There’s two parts to that. One of our core values is “do it right.” If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. So when it comes to the tools that we’ve built, we’ve always been very intentional to build the best possible tool for the form factor that we’re building for. Flip side of that being, you know, VSCO itself has played an active role in its community. It’s never been about building a passive platform that we build the tools, we build the community, and then step back and say “whatever happens, happens.” Something you’ll notice from VSCO from day one is that we’ve had an active voice in our community.

How big is the editorial team at VSCO?

We don’t break out based upon numbers. We’re a little over 150 employees right now. We’re curating and highlighting the content that we have already been created.

Do you just look at every post?

We built the proprietary technology, we call it Ava. That’s our machine-learning computer vision [software].

Does that stand for anything?

No, what the core of it is, is that it’s bringing together human curation and computer vision. From the beginning, they’ve been tagging content, less about object recognition (“hey, there’s a dog in this photo”) and more about how the image makes you feel or the style. So if you go into the app today, for example, you’ll see a section that is all content based upon content that you’ve engaged with on the platform that Ava recommends. But if you then click in on any image, you’ll start to notice it’s not like you clicked on an image of water and it’s just showing you other water. Maybe it was the texture of the water, the color. And it will start to recommend things that in a way that we wanted, from a creative perspective, to really get you to dive deeper and explore.

Sure, but isn’t that creating also spending time in the app?

I mean, yeah, you have to open the app use it. Anything that we build has something under that. But it’s all in service of creation. So all the stats and everything we’re looking at is around content being created, is around content engaged with but not time spent in app. Our business is not selling eyeballs in time spent in app to other brands and companies, but rather, it’s selling a subscription. It’s an experience. So it’s a member experience around a sense of belonging, being a part of the community.

What are those premium features?

Everything ranging from over 130 of all of our presets that we’ve created to video-editing tools, and other professional-quality tools. Challenges, which is kind of a combination of editorial and community, so there are prompts to go create with little lightweight guides as catalysts. So that’s really what we’re focused on now.

What percentage of VSCO’s user base pays for that stuff?

We launched the subscription in early 2017, something more than just tools. It was an experience of being a part of something. So both tools and community are part of a subscription. So last year, in under two years, we surpassed 2 million paid subscribers. We’re on pace to double that again this year.

VSCO recently released a study about its Gen-Z users. How much of VSCO’s user base is Gen Z?

Seventy-five percent of VSCO’s user base is under the age of 25. And 55 percent of those paid subscribers are under the age of 25. So the largest segment of those paying us is Gen Z.

So it costs 20 bucks a year? Is that focus-grouped and engineered for Gen Z? Because it’s not a lot — I feel like I’ve seen similar services charge more.

For us to get VSCO off the ground, we picked a price point that we felt was accessible. But it also conveyed the value of what we’re delivering. And so it was something that we were very thoughtful about.

Would you say Gen Z is your biggest focus?

Less targeted to a group and more targeted to a mind-set. So hyperfocused on really, this notion of investing in yourself. And doing that through creative expression. This is the first generation ever, like, before they’re even born, they had some digital footprint. So it’s no shock to me that, you know, we found that 96 percent of those surveyed were aware and acknowledge mental health, and the importance of it, but then the negative impact of social media has on it. And so I think what you’re finding is this hyperaware generation. The study also goes to say more than two-thirds have not posted content, based upon the anxiety.

I guess, in reading all of these stats, maybe some of the behavior seems unique to online spaces, but I don’t know … When I was a teenager roughly a decade ago or whatever, I had anxiety about social stuff. I worried people were going to make fun of me. How is that different from this? I guess my question is: How much of this is just being a teenager and using social media, and how much of it is actually social media?

I don’t even think it’s about being a teenager. I think it’s life. I think it’s human nature to have a worry what others think about you. I think as we grow, though, the goal is to help people find their voice, to be who they are, and to be confident in who they are. And so VSCO is about creating a space for you to do that. It was very intentional to not show likes or comments for the beginning, to not show following accounts publicly, and actually, to not show the count at all. To have all validation be more private and on the back end. So that when you go to look at a photo, or you go to see someone’s profile, you’re not allowing others to make a judgment for you whether or not this is good, or should find this inspiring. But do you personally have a connection with the image? Do you personally have connection with an individual? And from there, you can establish that relationship.

Actually what I think, though, that we’re seeing with Gen Z here is that it’s just like everything times ten. For me back in high school, I had the town that I was living in to worry about. I wasn’t comparing myself to everyone around the world. And you’re being compared to not just kids your age, but to everyone in the world. And there’s this anxiety that comes with “Am I good enough? Am I missing out by not living the life that others are living?” And it was really what we saw was this race to popularity that we felt so compelled to create the communities within VSCO the way that we did, to create a safe space for you to be who you are.

And that was back in 2013. So this is like, before this was being talked about, right? Everyone looked at us like, “Are you crazy? Like, you’re foregoing some of the easiest growth tactics in business.” But it’s been very intentional in the beginning.

But can you see those metrics on the backend? Can you see who the most popular user is or whatever?

No, because, again, our business is not about getting everyone to follow what is most popular. Our businesses to best understand you, and to serve you the right content that you will find inspiring for you to go create. All the data that we collect is to serve you and to help you on your creative journey.

So like what sort of data would that be?

Just around the content that you’re engaging with, the images that you’re uploading, and favoriting. So it’s what you share. When you click on an image to publish, or sharing your location data, what you’re typing in as the caption. We’ll start to recommend other content. And if you go into the app under Settings, you can see and also toggle what you don’t want to be sharing.

If you’re analyzing user uploads and recommending things similar in some way, how do you avoid everything sort of looking the same or everyone just sort of like trending in the same direction? Or do you want that?

No, no, we don’t. It kind of goes back to everything from how the business has been set up. Our business is a subscription. It’s not whether or not we’re able to reach you with ads, it’s whether you personally find value. If you don’t find things that compel you to create, you don’t find the tools to express yourself however you choose, you’re not going to find value in VSCO.

Is VSCO profitable?

We don’t disclose that. But I can say that the business is really healthy and growing extremely fast. It’s growing at a pace that we’ve never seen or launched on the app in 2012. With 2 million paid subscribers last year, we’re on pace to nearly doubled it again this year.

Just doing some mental math, so $40 million last year?

We don’t disclose, but yes.

Regarding VSCO’s arc, I’m not sure which metric to use here, but has the graph been steadily going up? Has it had, like, a pop? And then like a dip, and then going back up again?

Oh, it’s been it’s been a great ride. I mean, you know, the business is definitely growing. And like I mentioned …

Has it always been growing?

Well, it’s growing at a pace like we’ve never seen.

Would you say there’s been a resurgence in interest in VSCO?

You know, I think I would say there’s a growing interest around creativity. You walk around the streets here in New York, and in any city, every billboard, from every phone manufacturer is about the camera. Because we believe that as devices continue to get better and better, because we’re in the business of creating these professional-quality tools, we’re just having more and more opportunities to build great technology and software.

There’s a term that’s recently popular, the VSCO girl. How would you define that?

On one end, it’s no surprise, because we see trends like this popping up on VSCO all the time. Granted, with that, I will say, never anything that’s gone global and beyond VSCO the way that this has. But I think at its core, it’s really a testament to what I was talking about with the community, and in particular Gen Z, looking for a safe space to share how they see the world, and truly who they are, free of judgment. And I think what you’re seeing with VSCO girl is an extension of that.

So given all that you’ve said about being creative, comparing yourself to each other, etc., is it weird that there is an archetype for someone that uses VSCO? Does that run contrary to your operating philosophy?

We’re working to create a world in which differences are celebrated. There’s space on VSCO in which anyone can share who they are, and how they see the world. And so while VSCO girls represents one group and one style, you’ll see that there’s so much more. And so this is one of many.

Yeah, but it’s sort of like how redditors are a specific type of person who uses Reddit. Like there are a bunch of different people who use the site, but there’s one type of person that comes to define it. Is that good? Bad?

A VSCO girl doesn’t define everyone on VSCO. Yeah, it defines a group that’s there, for sure, but there’s so many more. I think the best thing I could encourage you to do is to get on VSCO and you will see that there’s so much more.

So the community has kind of embraced it?

I think there’s an element of “so what if I am?” [Following our conversation, VSCO presented me with my very own Hydro Flask.]

Julie Inouye, a VSCO communications rep, who came in during the interview: The firm we did the study with is run by Gen-Z people. And one of the things they told me is that, when you or I go on a flight, the last thing I’m doing is using that time to be super-productive. They download, apparently, hundreds of photos, so that they can then edit those photos and reedit things that they’ve done before on a long flight. These are the kinds of behaviors that are so unique to them. They’re taking care of themselves.

I hear what you’re saying. Part of what I’m stuck on is that the behavior doesn’t seem all that different from how people use other apps. Like people on Instagram or whatever are also obsessed with editing photos. So it’s the same behavior. It’s the same type of engagement on a certain level.

It is very, very different, when you look at someone’s profile, from one platform to another.

It’s weird to hear the idea that users want to appear more authentic and less perfect and less competitive and then also hear that they’re spending hours editing photos. It seems contradictory.

[Boots up his phone.] If we can use one of the self-proclaimed VSCO girls, Hannah Meloche: You look at her VSCO, there are many things that are not of her. These aren’t the perfect close-ups that are of her face or what she’s wearing on Instagram. It’s not just the one best curated photo, you can see her entire day. It’s why there’s so many VSCO links in people’s bios on Instagram. “If you want to know who I am, check out my VSCO.”

Does it seem like VSCO’s existence is supported by these larger, more competitive platforms? Does VSCO exist in the way that it does without being able to position itself as different from something else?

Yeah, absolutely. There’s a ton of free editors out there. People are choosing VSCO for well beyond just the tools. We’re very self-aware; it’s not just about using one platform or another. We help you share your content to wherever you want to share. We’re not trying to keep everything just within VSCO. And so for that, we’re uniquely positioned in a way that helps you express yourself.

In some ways, does that runs contrary to this low-stress, anti-competitive nature of VSCO, that you’re making it easy for people to put VSCO stuff on other platforms?

No, because again, go back to our mission and our vision: VSCO is the place where you’re actually creating that content. No person just exists in one location.

VSCO CEO Reacts to Summer’s Biggest Meme, the ‘VSCO Girl’