Returning to my second year at university has welcomed back a year’s worth of traditions. Communal living, shower shoes, deliciously starchy dining hall meals. After living at a quiet house all summer, the youthful atmosphere feels equally right and familiar. Being surrounded by students like myself in age makes campus feel current. Ideas, trends and social constructions are so very new and next. Immediately we are able to identify what is “big” or defining in our college demographic. So, if you’re a fellow student, naturally Snapchat appears in your daily vocabulary.
Saturday and Sunday mornings I roll over in bed to check the time and scroll through social media on my iPhone. I open Snapchat to view 18 consecutive Snapchat stories of friends (but mostly acquaintances) in an unidentifiable basement, maybe laser lights blinking in the background. They’re lipping to some Drake and a red solo cup usually wiggles into frame. You know exactly the story I’m talking about. These videos are unexplainable and ridiculous. And for this reason they are deeply connected to teens and young adults.
Snapchat has garnered a monstrous user audience in the past year alone. As the social media platform continues to grow, its popularity has manufactured its own etiquette and guidelines. Snapchat has taken on a life of its own at this point, extending beyond just an application on one’s smartphone. We are living in a Snapchat culture.
My first introduction to Snapchat was sometime in 2012 at my local Walmart. My friend at the time, who was one of a dozen students at my school who used the iPhone 4 (OMG), was letting me gawk at the seemingly-perfect iOS setup. I saw an app with a cartoon ghost on it and asked what it was.
“Oh it’s Snapchat. You send a photo to a friend and it disappears in 10 seconds— watch!”
She took a photo and sent it away to one of her TWO Snapchat friends. Immediately, she received a blurry selfie with the caption “Hi!”. As quickly as I glanced at it, she vanished.
“But why would you want to send a photo and not keep it?” I asked. The answer would come to me years later after some serious forethought about technology, the media and youth culture.
The context of this first introduction is key. In 2012, people were graduating from Facebook to something more quippy and instant: Twitter. The social relevance of a hashtag infiltrated the media. I remember tweeting at your crush being the thing to do as a freshman. Before long, the use of Instagram overshadowed other social networks. Simple, fun and more aesthetically pleasing than Twitter, Instagram gave us all the perfect peek into the lives of those we followed. Though Instagram still held a chair at the round table of social media, 2015 catapulted Snapchat to the forefront. Most instant, most raw and most communicative, Snapchat gave us a brilliant formula that people between the ages of 14 and 24 gobbled up.
The basis of snapchat is picture messaging— an action one is perfectly capable of doing through iMessage. Caption characters are limited to two lines and the photo may only last up to 10 seconds and as little as 1. When it’s laid out for you in these terms, what makes Snapchatting so appealing? In a word: everything. The fleeting nature of sending snaps is exciting to those who want to send racy photos or messages they were not brave enough to look at in their “sent” column. The symbolic poof of auto-erasing photos speaks to the attention span online media has given us. Instead of scrolling endlessly, it is simply there and then it is not. Elementary, care-free and damn easy.
The creation of the Snapchat story was what really lit the application on fire. While the construction of mysterious photo-messaging was enticing to users, social sites like Twitter and Instagram allowed users to achieve a persona by posting to the masses. But the genius invention of a widely-viewable string of videos with your name above it quickly put the aforementioned to shame. The Snapchat story is the personal movie to your life. The idea of posting photos and videos was nothing new by this point, but the momentary spirit of Snapchat called for different types of media content.
For example, your friend’s personal photos on their Facebook or Instagram are usually guarded by a sense of falsehood. Who knows how many tries it took to get the perfect angle on your hiking trip, or if Becky was blinking in your group photo. The appeal of Snapchat is that it is as candid as it gets. Consequently postings are often nonsensical, unpolished and unrehearsed. From a social standpoint, Snapchat has become the paramount device for finding out the “real” life of a friend or acquaintance. A funny tweet may take a few drafts to perfect, but Snapchat is able to capture that which you find hilarious or embarrassing as it happens.
Celebrity Snapchat accounts have gained booming popularity with the general public as well. Attesting to the concept of peeking into another’s life, many find Snapchat as the link to their favorite star. Our cultural fascination with celebrity leads us to Snapchat, where we can find out what exactly Kylie Jenner puts on her ramen noodles. In no way is this groundbreaking, but Snapchat has turned news media on its head, as the rich and famous snatch up the job of the paparazzi. Similarly, the average person is more capable than ever of capturing an event and gaining traction before the media does.
The magnetization of Snapchat has pushed boundaries for other social media sites. Instagram recently added a nearly identical “story” feature and live-stream apps like Periscope are highly downloaded. This technological era is fully self-aware in this aspect. Snapchat does not coerce users, it simply allows them to put a hand in one of the bigger cultural constructions of the decade. It should be mentioned that just because a concept or item is culturally relevant, it does not give it a culture of its own. As silly as it sounds, the facial-recognition filters of Snapchat have created deep social meaning. How else could puppy ears turn into a branding of appearance and sexuality? What I have personally witnessed since the birth of Snapchat is a social movement that has molded the minds of young people. Snapchat has silently created its own code of usage, along with universal understandings about how the app can change the public’s perception of you.
When we were younger and cyber-bullying had just made its debut, guidance counselors taught us about keyboard courage. We learned that the disconnect of face-to-face communication allowed bullies to type their insults with a sense of protection. Fast-forward to now, where keyboard courage extends to the lenses of Snapchat. Though I have never personally seen anyone be verbally bullied on Snapchat, the false sense of security is embedded within the culture of the app. People, particularly young people, understand that their image on Snapchat reflect the fun or even ballsy things they do. The first time I had ever seen anyone at school do cocaine was on a Snapchat story. This person willingly posted her drug usage for seven seconds and immediately gave all her followers a million different impressions of her.
Perhaps not in this extreme, but all young Snapchat users have the availability of capturing wild moments in the back of their mind. That’s why snapping at parties or nights out is almost crucial in a millennial’s life. In some circles, dimly lit front camera videos at bars would be distasteful or pointless. But under the surface, Snapchat has built pressure upon our online reputation. By allowing us to capture life as we know it instantly, Snapchat users feel they must show off the fun they’re having, the friends they’re making or the mischief they are involved in. In Snapchat culture, we have reached an understanding that’s just what you do.
My aunt was recently encouraged to create a Snapchat account by a coworker. We were chatting about it and she expressed that she just didn’t “get it”. And honestly, why would she? The target audience Snapchat monetizes off of consists of young people concerned with their online presence. From the perspective of someone who has lived through their youth without notions of screenshots, double-taps or viewership, what difference does Snapchat make in their life? To my generation however, we are more aware of our social media lives than ever.
This idea of Snapchat culture is not meant to deter users. After all, Snapchat is meant to innovate your messaging experience. I don’t know anyone who isn’t excited to receive a snap from someone. I believe the analysis of Snapchat culture broadens our understanding of communication in 2016. I’ve seen people post on their stories to get back at exes or to misdirect focus and illude that they are having a good time. The reality Snapchat has created scratches the surface of how we as young people want to be well liked, cool and even a little bit famous. In a way, Snapchat caters to the irreverence of a generation of youth. When your parents were young the movement was Rock n Roll. As we search for ourselves in young adulthood, the movement is in ten seconds or less.