One of the benefits of paying $1,500 for a room in a San Francisco “startup house” is you get to live with a bunch of early 20-somethings and observe their obsession with Snapchat. It’s widely known that anyone above the age of 30 finds Snapchat baffling, not just for the concept it’s based on — disappearing messages — but because using the app itself is confusing as hell. But the more I learned, the more I appreciated Snapchat’s appeal and how innovative it is, even iconoclastic for a social media platform. Snapchat flies in the face of everything us oldsters have come to expect from a social media app.
Death to the profile: Facebook ushered in — or actually Friendster did if we want to get technical — the concept of a profile page. You’ve got your main profile image in the top left, your connections, recent posts, more photos, and a little about you. On Snapchat, there are no profiles, at least not in this traditional sense. A “profile” in Snapchat world is your name, handle, and an optional animated gif selfie that lurks in the background of a transparent Snapchat ghost. Beyond that, a Snapchat profile doesn’t tell you anything about the person because unlike say, Facebook, Snapchat friends are your real-life, actual friends. In fact, you can’t even search for people on Snapchat by name unless they’re already in your address book or you know their screen name.
Live, 24-hour breaking stories: Stories are what transformed Snapchat from an ephemeral messaging app to something truly innovative. A Snapchat story is simply every photo and video you’ve taken in the past 24 hours. You can access Stories by swiping left on the camera screen where you’ll find “My Story” and the stories from all of your friends represented by partially completed circles. The closer the circle is to completion, the closer it is to being up for 24 hours. During those 24 hours, you can watch your friends’ stories as many times as you want, but once the 24 hours is up, they’re gone forever.
Timing is everything: What makes stories unique is they allow you to live vicariously for 24 hours through the eyes of a friend. Compare that to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which show postings from all of your connections within a newsfeed. The newsfeed is great for skimming, but provides a fractured snapshot of each connection’s overall experience. It’s the difference between just reading news headlines vs. reading a first-person narrative. On Snapchat, every photo and video posted is encapsulated within that little partially completed circle. And because every post is from the last 24 hours, it provides an intimate real-time glimpse into that friend’s day. Snapchat stories are never stale.
Nothing lasts forever: While Instagram is your Greatest Hits Album, Snapchat is your life uncut, and you’re OK if some of it disappears. You wouldn’t want to save a snap or a story any more than you’d want to DVR “Anderson Cooper Live” and watch it again the following week. The “Best of” moments of that day have already been memorialized on Instagram as a single photo selected from dozens that were taken. Snapchat is breaking news. Instagram is the final package.
What your mom might say: The experience of watching a friend’s life in real-time, “Truman Show”-style, doesn’t appeal just to teenagers or 20-somethings. It has universal human appeal, and it’s only a matter of time before our training wheels come off and us 30-somethings start snapping away, if you haven’t already. It’s also about that time, when you overhear a kid in a coffee shop say, “Oh God, my mom just added me on Snapchat!” that the next newfangled social app that has already started building momentum across a few college campuses will start spreading like wildfire.Kevin Leland is managing partner at Argyle, a firm specializing in product and growth strategy for startups and corporate innovation centers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kmleland.