What is this Snapchat thing?

While in Istanbul, I met a bright Turkish teenager while eating at the dorm cafeteria. We chatted for a bit and as I got up to leave, I asked if he had Facebook. He said, “no, but I have Snapchat.”

I first tried Snapchat in late 2012, about a year after it’s launch. The app let you to take and share photos with your friends. But I didn’t really get it. Couldn’t I already do this with Facebook, Instagram, or a text? Apparently, the difference with Snapchat was that the photo would disappear 10 seconds after it was viewed. But why I would want my photos to disappear? And if I did, couldn’t the person just take a screenshot? It felt weird. And none of my friends used it. A social app is pretty useless without your friends. I quickly gave up and uninstalled the app.

A year later, I gave it another shot. By this time, a few friends were using the app and sending me “snaps” — photos or videos in Snapchat lingo. This time I just couldn’t figure out how to use the app. Snapchat was one of the first apps where you swiped both vertically and horizontally to navigate its screens. I was only familiar with vertical scrolling — the way all websites and most apps worked at that time — and this new mix overwhelmed my brain. I gave up and uninstalled the app once again.

Over the last few months, while traveling alongside some heavy Snapchat users, I gave the app one more shot. I think I finally get it. Since it took me a while, I wanted to figure out what I had missed. You know besides getting old and becoming more resistant to change. Here’s what I came up with:

It’s an experience. Let’s start with Snapchat’s distinguishing feature: photos and videos that disappear. While it’s easy to conclude that the app exists to allow teenagers to send inappropriate photos to each other, what Snapchat has actually achieved is more impressive. We often choose to collect things (e.g. buying records, cars, houses, etc.), but sometimes we choose to pursue experiences (e.g. attending concerts, traveling to new cities, trying new foods, etc.). In a small way, Snapchat is social media for choosing experiences over things. When you have just one chance to see something before it’s gone forever, you’ll pay more attention than when you’re mindlessly scrolling through your neverending Facebook feed.

It encourages creation. We spend a lot of our time consuming things (e.g. watching Netflix, reading books, etc.), but sometimes when we’re feeling inspired, we create things (e.g. writing a letter, taking a picture, cooking a meal, etc.). Unlike most popular apps, Snapchat encourages you to create. When you open Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, you first see your feed — that endless stream of pictures, posts, likes, and comments. To actually share something of your own, you click a separate button. When you open Snapchat, however, you’re taken to the camera and nudged to take a picture and share it. We aren’t writing novels or creating works of art but it’s a start.

It’s not forever. Snapchat realized that we don’t necessarily want everything we share to be stored forever. We’ve all spent some time — hours in my case — cleaning up our social media feeds by deleting old photos and posts. With Snapchat, there’s no need. Everything is stored only in your own memory, similar to a conversation you might have at the local cafe or a phone call with your best friend. There doesn’t seem to be a need to store most of what we do in our day-to-day lives.

It’s more personal. For me, 1-to-1 messaging (e.g. email, text, etc.) remains the most powerful way to connect. When a friend sends a photo, video, or article, with a personalized message, I always check it out. When that same friend uses social media to share with everyone, I rarely even see it. More than other social media, Snapchat makes sharing feel personal. After taking a photo, you’re asked to select individual friends to share with. It’s a conversation rather than an announcement. While Snapchat has introduced a way to share a snap with all your friends (called Stories), these snaps are placed in a separate inbox and they retain the Snapchat feel; Stories last only 24 hours and there are no likes or comments to watch and obsess over.

It’s not everything. Snapchat isn’t the be-all and end-all of social media. Facebook, as my defacto address book, is probably my most important app. Instagram and iCloud Photo Sharing help me keep up with friends and family. And Twitter keeps me connected to the larger world around. Snapchat has showed me something though; there’s plenty yet to come out of the fun and crazy world of social media. I just hope I can keep up.

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