Remember when Instagram was small, and then it was big, and then suddenly you were keeping track of who wasn’t on Instagram rather than who was? Or how about when Words with Friends became so universally addicting that not even Alec Baldwin could put it down? Well, that kind of viral growth is happening again.
Meet Snapchat, the social app that lets you send self-destructing (and maybe self-destructive) photos to friends. A few seconds after your receipients view your photo, POOF!—it will disappear. It’s addictive, like flashing your boobs on Spring Break or playing peekaboo with an infant. The app may not be huge at NYU right now, but judging by its #2 position in Apple’s App Store and reports of over 30 million snaps per day, Snapchat is mysteriously big like the Cloverfield monster—and it’s coming for us.
Behind the app are Stanford graduates Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy. Everything you need to know about these guys can be summed up by the app’s mascot “Ghostface Chillah.” On the phone, Spiegel sounded like your perpetually inspired West Coast roommate who was so laid back you tried to upset him just to see if it was possible.
In 2011 Spiegel presented the idea for Snapchat to his product design class at Stanford. They laughed in his face. Like all great minds, Spiegel and Murphy knew they had something: social media had gotten “boring,” with people “trying to put on a show for other people,” Spiegel said. “In reality, everyone has very unique, silly, weird, strange friends, but that’s not what’s coming through on social media so it would make you feel disconnected from your friends.”
He had a point. Our obsession with curating experiences through social platforms has become more consuming than the platforms themselves. The photos that end up on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are carefully chosen and edited to present some managed, artificial history: a trip to Hawaii becomes a calculated collection of sunsets, sandy legs and palm tree silhouettes. What happened to the snapshot?
There is no management of our digital identities on Snapchat because there is nothing to manage. Photos sent must be taken within the app, not imported from the phone’s storage, and beyond basic captioning and silly doodling, there are no filters or ways to distort reality. Snapchat is about “celebrating living in the moment,” Spiegel says. “It’s not about pretty things. It’s about real people.”
For most users, that fleeting moment is something foolish, ugly or surprising. One student described her exchanges as “silly photo[s] you wouldn’t want to keep around on a phone.” It’s a shot taken with a frown and droopy eyes in the morning or a mid-day hello from the toilet. (Author’s note: Please stop sending me pictures from the toilet. It’s starting to creep me out.) Therein lies the biggest critcism of Snapchat, and perhaps the reason why it became popular in the first place: A self-destructive private photo app is nearly begging to be the Official Sponsor of Sexting.
If you are a sexter (or a politician?), it’s hard not to love this app. It’s almost too convenient to send some skin, knowing the photo will distintegrate in a matter of seconds. For the quick-reflexed, it’s possible to take a screenshot and preserve the image, but the sender will receive a notification that such an attempt was made. There seems to be some unspoken agreement that this violates the social contract of the app, so don’t be surprised if your girlfriend breaks up with you if you screenshot that image from last night. Either way the app doesn’t stop people from doing it, so dickpic at your own risk, kids.
In many ways, the app is a reaction to digital paranoia; we are aware that the content (read: dickpics) we produce live somewhere, gated only by murky privacy settings and passwords. Snapchat is only concerned with what happens in the moment: surprise, suspense and celebration. The ephemeral, the unadulterated. It’s real-time conversation without long-term consequences. “A lot of the things we do in Snapchat are designed to help you have a conversation that feels like it’s happening in real life,” Spiegel said.
And like Instagram, it shares a longing for the past; in Snapchat’s case, a past where our clothing, food and expressions were not influenced by the threat of public documentation. It’s the snapshot, revisited.