There have been a few distractions in the real world over the past couple months, so you’d be forgiven if the Great Snapchat Meltdown of 2016 didn’t register on your radar. In early July, Snapchat introduced Memories, a new feature that enables users to save photos and videos in a special searchable archive for later use.
It felt like an intuitive (even overdue) tweak for the increasingly popular chat app, which made its name (and built its 150 million daily users) on the exchange of fleeting “Snaps”: photos and short videos that, once opened and viewed, vanish forever. But to many diehard Snapchatters who regard the app’s devotion to the present moment as the source of its appeal and authenticity, the change amounted to a grand betrayal of Snapchat’s raison d’être.
“With Memories, Snapchat has forgotten what it is,” read one headline. “Snapchat announces ‘Memories,’ kills the fun of the app,” read another. And across Twitter, a verdict was quickly levied: With the launch of Memories, Snapchat was turning into Instagram. (i.e. “You’ve changed, man.”)
As a faithful Snapchatter myself, I can attest that the sudden intrusion of the past into the perpetual present the app has spent years cultivating did feel a bit disruptive at first. But I soon realized that Memories is there to accelerate a more profound change in the way people are using Snapchat.
More than a third of Snapchat’s users regularly create “Stories”: sequences of photos and videos that, once posted, can be viewed by friends for 24 hours. Stories were first introduced in 2013, and now account for nearly 10 billion video views per day. They work like visual status updates, and they’re way more addictive than the interminable Timelines of text you must scroll through on Facebook or Twitter.
But with the addition of Memories, the simple slideshows of Stories can evolve into robust narratives. Suddenly, your Stories are unstuck in time; you can toss in a handful of photos from last week’s vacation, or flash back to those blithe few moments right before you broke your arm, or show how much Junior has grown over the past year. Stories can incorporate artwork, images, or anything else that lives on your Camera Roll. The incorporation of the past has added a (literal) new dimension to the Snapchat — that is, Stories can now tell actual stories.
So it’s no wonder that just a month later, the story has flipped: Now Instagram is turning into Snapchat.
Just this past week, the Facebook-owned photo- and video-sharing site launched its own (nearly indistinguishable) Stories function to its 500 million regular users. And just as Snapchat’s rollout of Memories ran counter to its ethos of ephemerality, so too does Instagram’s introduction of Stories seem at odds with its nature.
If anything, when Snapchat arrived, it was welcomed as a respite from the carefully curated, finely filtered, and generally uptight gallery show of Instagram. (“Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment,” said the company’s first blog post in 2012.) Now it’s become a model for how Instagram and other social media networks are evolving. (Facebook also briefly tested a Stories-esque tool called Quick Updates, but has since scrapped it.)
On Instagram, Stories are virtually stroke-for-stroke identical to their Snapchat counterparts. You can string photos and videos together, doodle on them, slap text over them; they last for 24 hours. Unlike Snapchat, you can’t (yet) superimpose stupid animated filters over your face.
But apart from minute details (most of which find better design on Instagram), the Stories are much the same. In the context of the contentious mobile app-scape, this overt similarity might simply signal two apps trying to attract each other’s users. But in more general terms, it suggests the emergence of a new social media medium.
Advertisers, networks, celebrities, and creatives have been digging into the new form though Snapchat’s branded Discover service since it launched in 2015, and now they’re storming Instagram to post Stories to much larger audiences. (Nike’s first Instagram Story garnered 800,000 views in 24 hours — more than 10 times what its best Story attracted on Snapchat.) And the capital-S Story is even starting to reach bigger screens than the one in your hand. One recent anti-drunk-driving PSA issued from the Ad Council precisely mimics the structure of a Story, and this year the Tribeca Film Festival introduced competition specifically for “Snapchat Shorts.”
It would be poetically appropriate if this Stories trend vaporized after a short time, but it feels both more stubborn and more significant than that. It’s easy to imagine Stories graduating into the standard units of social media expression — much like e-mails and blog posts once were, or tweets and status updates are now.
As the unlikely meeting place between two platforms that once maintained such distinct identities, the Story feels like a telling instance of consensus. Text is giving way more and more to visual means of expression online (see: emoji, stickers, photos, Snaps, livestreams, VR), but our human inclination to share experiences remains as strong as ever. Stories might not improve our lives, but they’ll at least improve what we post — in part by treating that age-old advice to writers as a rule of engagement: Show, don’t tell.