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Are Disposables the Future of Photo Sharing?

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Dispo, a new photo-sharing app that mimics the experience of using a disposable camera, is taking off. People are clamoring for invites to test the beta version. Early adopters are praising its social features. And investors are betting big on its future.

In the app, users frame photographs through a small rectangular viewfinder. There are no editing tools or captions; when the images “develop” — i.e. show up on your phone at 9 a.m. the next day — you get what you get. Multiple people can take photos on the same roll, as might happen with a real disposable camera at a party.

“When I used to go to parties with my friends, they would have disposable cameras all throughout the house, and they’d urge people to take pictures throughout the night,” said David Dobrik, a YouTube star and a founder of the app. “In the morning, they’d collect all the cameras and look back at the footage and be like, ‘What happened last night?’” (He used an expletive for emphasis.)

He and his friends loved the serendipity of scrolling through fleeting and forgotten moments. “It would be like the ending of ‘The Hangover’ every morning,” Mr. Dobrik, 24, said. He started posting his developed photographs on a dedicated Instagram account in June 2019, and quickly racked up millions of followers. Other influencers and celebrities, including Tana Mongeau and Gigi Hadid, soon started their own “disposable” accounts; their fans followed suit.

Sensing a trend, Mr. Dobrik sought to recreate the disposable-camera experience digitally, as an antidote to the obsession with getting the perfect shot. “You never looked at the picture, you never checked the lighting,” he said of using disposables. “You just went on with your day, and in the morning you got to relive it.”

In December 2019, he introduced a photo app called David’s Disposable, through which people could take retro-looking pictures that “developed” overnight. Its early following suggested that the model had bigger potential. So, over the course of a year, it was developed into Dispo, a full-fledged social network that began beta testing with the public last Friday.

Though Dispo’s latest version has only been available to the public for less than a week, it’s already generating buzz. The app climbed the ranks in Apple’s App Store this week. Dispo-themed discussion rooms have popped up on Clubhouse. YouTubers are sharing reviews, tips for scoring invites and growth hacks. Just as VSCO gave rise to the VSCO girl, Dispo has produced a stable of “Dispo boys.” Some photos from Dispo have even hit the online art market as NFTs, or “nonfungible tokens.”

The app’s beta users have lauded its restraint. “I feel like photos are just simpler,” said Goldie Chan, 38, the founder of Warm Robots, a social strategy agency in Los Angeles. “Apps like Clubhouse are so much noise, literally. When you have something like Dispo or VSCO, you’re just taking pictures. You can snap a moment in time and let it go.”

This shift away from highly curated feeds has been in the works for several years. In 2019, the rise of “relatable” YouTubers like Emma Chamberlain helped pioneer a goofy and irreverent editing style that became the default for Gen Z. And throughout 2020, TikTok gave birth to a new wave of creators focused more on personality than perfection.

“Where Instagram filters in 2011 made everyone beautiful, TikTok filters in 2021 make everyone ugly,” Rex Woodbury, a principal at Index Ventures, recently wrote. “And where Instagram gave you filters to help your bad photos look good, Dispo purposefully makes your good photos look worse.”

Anyha Garcia, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom in Utah, started using Dispo a week ago. She’s a fan of its simplicity. “I don’t have to sit and crop it or edit it,” she said. “I take a pic, and hopefully it turns out. I can go back and look at it later instead of looking at it now and making these tweaks or worrying about taking 10 to 12 more photos of that thing I’m trying to take a picture of.”

People have also taken to the app’s emphasis on collaboration. “Insta made everyone a general photographer. Dispo makes you a photographer with a purpose,” said Terry O’Neal, 31, a brand manager in Los Angeles who has been using the app. He has created several color-themed camera rolls and asked other users to help him find objects that fit each theme. “That’s where the community building is, everyone looking for the same thing through their own lens,” he said.

“The big thing with Dispo is the collaborative rolls,” said Luke Yung, 31, a social media director in Los Angeles. “People are finding ways to be creative together. It’s like an innate contest to out-create each other in these community rolls that I haven’t seen before on any social network.”

Though Dispo’s photos don’t have captions, the comment sections of collaborative camera rolls can be lively. There are rolls where people are invited to guess the story behind each photo, or comment with song lyrics they feel match the mood of an image. Another roll features photos of handwritten notes meant to spark conversation.

The social network has avoided the spammy growth-hack culture that often emerges on early-stage apps, and Easter eggs in its display poke fun at the obsession with boosting one’s metrics. Mr. Dobrik, for instance, appears to have 69 million followers and photos and 420 likes on Dispo.

Small creator collectives have emerged, however. “I created a roll called the Dispo Hype Group where we were adding everyone and accepting everyone’s invite,” Ms. Garcia said. The group, which includes about 40 people, is hoping to organize an IRL meet-up when it’s safe to do so.

Dispo has already begun expanding internationally, especially in Japan, where the company plans to open an office. Though it’s currently only an eight-person company, the start-up’s rapid expansion has made it an appealing target for venture capitalists.

In a seed funding round in October, led by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s firm Seven Seven Six, Dispo raised $4 million. This week, the company raised $20 million at a $200 million valuation in a Series A funding round led by Spark Capital, according to Axios. Dispo has also held talks with other major venture firms, including Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and Benchmark, according to The Information.

As the app continues to grow, Dispo’s leaders have expressed a commitment to ensuring that the app remains a safe and open space for its users. “Trust and safety is something that is incredibly important to us and will be a relentless focus,” said Daniel Liss, 32, Dispo’s C.E.O. “Saying we don’t have a position on trust and safety is not good enough. To our community and shareholders it’s unacceptable.”

“It’s a position I’m hiring for before any investor has asked me about it because it’s important to me, David and our team,” he added.

Though there will always be competition and copycats, Mr. Dobrik believes what Dispo offers is something that photo filters can’t replicate.

“When you see a disposable photo you know it’s real and it wasn’t crafted or put together,” he said. “It just happened and it was captured. That’s what makes it so exciting.”


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