It was right around this time last year that I first got on the Snapchat train, and unlike my flirtations with some other upstart social media networks (oh, hello Ello), I’m still very much on board.
And I’m not alone. Those 100 million active monthly users on the app that I mentioned last year are now 100 million active daily users, 65 percent of whom use Snapchat to send vanishing photos and videos (i.e. Snaps, which delete themselves after viewing), or post visual status updates (i.e. Stories, which delete themselves after 24 hours). Photoworld estimates that nearly 8,000 snaps are sent each second — it would take 10 years to view all the snaps shared in the last hour.
My usage is comparably lighter than the average — my “Snapscore” (a “special equation combining the number of Snaps you’ve sent and received, Stories you’ve posted, and other factors”) is a statistically paltry 1,282. I’m also a relative fossil on Snapchat, with 71 percent of my fellow users falling between the ages of 18 and 34.
And while I’ve observed an anecdotal uptick in the number of friends-of-a-certain-age joining up, Snapchat remains somewhat hard to sell to the (often begrudgingly) Facebook devout. Not least of all because it’s getting harder to describe.
As Snapchat expands, so too does the idea behind it. What started as a (sometimes confusingly) minimal messaging app with a reputation for trafficking solely in furtively sent junk pics has broadened into something more like a broadcasting platform. A year ago, the notion of content that expires after 24 hours might have seemed useless to advertisers after impressions that lasted longer than an impression. But like one of the 100 million Snaps sent per day, that fear seems to have vaporized.
One of the most popular features on Snapchat is its Live Stories, which draw 20 million people every 24 hours. Using geolocation technology and a centralized team of Snap curators, Live Stories take user-submitted Snaps tagged to certain events or locations and stitch them into what feel like narratives. Anything from music festivals (the Coachella Live Story reportedly drew 40 million unique viewers) to presidential campaigns (Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina are all active Snappers) can be concentrated into a Story, offering viewers a multiplicity of perspectives and an intimate vantage point.
In the past year it has also dumped considerable energy into its Discover feature. Launched in January, Discover offered a direct portal between media companies (inlcuding ESPN, Comedy Central, the Daily Mail, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, Vice) and Snapchat users. Functioning like micro-channels, each branded Story is refreshed with new content daily, some taking a newsier approach, and others getting experimental with small-scale serials and original content.
If we’re being honest, most of what makes it onto Discover isn’t must-see material so much as might-as-well-see, but that hasn’t stopped a reported 60 million monthly viewers from thumbing through it. So far only 18 or so brands have ponied up to advertise through Discover channels (early reports claimed that a vanishing ad on the service could run upward of $750,000/day), but it’s a ramping trend that will likely experience a boost with the impending frenzy of holiday spending.
Watching Snapchat figure itself out has been a lot more engaging than any of the content it has come up with so far. Like the awkward younger brother of television and social media, Snapchat is carving its own weird path forth, and its growing pains (not least among them its survival of The Snappening, a massive leak last year of racy Snaps that had been illicitly saved and insecurely stored on unauthorized servers) have been kind of gripping.
But what keeps me snapping is the stupid stuff. There’s a playfulness baked into every update of the app, a try-this/try-that spirit that runs parallel to Snapchat’s experimentations in the marketplace.
The recent Lenses update uses facial recognition technology (gleaned from recently acquired startup Looksery) to let users enhance their video selfies with a changing selection of animations: You can puke rainbows, morph into a zombie, or have pink hearts flutter over your eyes, for instance.
A new system of Friend Emojis lets you analyze the dynamics of your friendzone (who your “Best Friends” are, etc.). A feature called Snapcash lets you zap money to a friend instantly (and sports a somewhat creepy “make it rain” feature that translates a three-finger swipe into a shower of bills on your friend's screen). A mysterious page of Trophies incentivizes exploration of the app’s nooks and crannies by unlocking little virtual baubles when your snaps hit certain technical criteria.
For old-timers like me, still stuck in a Facebook rut — where, between the targeted ads and schmaltzy auto-generated videos cobbled from my old photos, I’m starting to feel a bit too catered to — the challenge of adopting a completely different social media dynamic feels beneficial, calisthenic even. The short memory of Snapchat feels like a weight lifted.
But the enduring allure of Snapchat, as silly or seedy as the app’s antics so often seem, is its fearlessness in reimagining what social media can and should look like — how to make a lasting impression without leaving a trace.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.