Consuming media at high speed: Snapchat is colourful and goofy and takes place exclusively in the here and now. Its high user numbers make the app one of the most serious competitors to the established social media platforms.
The internet never forgets” is a digital truism familiar to everyone in media and a factor that shapes our everyday digital world. Maybe the internet doesn’t forget—but Snapchat does. A video or picture on Snapchat lasts for up to 10 seconds before it disappears. In a world where our feeds are full of information, in which algorithms shape and limit our consumption of media, Snapchat— short, fast, colourful and often daft—is a breath of fresh air with a selfie filter. Many users are irritated by how fast the content can disappear. Why produce something just for it to vanish so quickly? Who writes a text, only to delete it right away? Who takes a photo, just to bin it immediately? This is precisely the wrong logic with which to approach Snapchat. The disappearance of content is what makes the app.
Snapchat takes place in the present—in the here and now. Well, almost. Anything that’s older than 24 hours is cut out of the story. Yesterday’s content. Evan Spiegel, one of the app’s founders, deleted all of his 900 tweets in 2015. A Snapchat company spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that Spiegel preferred to live in the present, a boss who lives the ethos of their brand.
Our everyday media world is transforming at an accelerating rate. Something from a year, a month, a week ago, can now be totally obsolete. In the world of Snapchat, this is irrelevant. For young people in particular, the pace of change—the benchmark—is getting shorter. This speed, and this speed of living, is part of Snapchat’s DNA. Nostalgia is for Facebook.
At ease with the present
But Snapchat also leaves room for the old. The Memories function, added in July 2016, opens a window on the past. Concerns that this would turn Snapchat into a second Facebook proved unfounded. With Memories, users simply show their followers moments from the past, a short look back and nothing more. The core of the app stays in the here and now.
On Facebook, and to a certain degree on Twitter and on Instagram, the algorithm is king. It decides what we get to see. But for Snapchat, the motto is: “What you see is what you get.” Your story feed doesn’t get congested. You are shown the content to which you have subscribed. 24 hours a day. Information is imbibed; when you look through a Snapchat story, it disappears, like an unending magazine that you leaf through.
Snapchat speaks directly to young people, because there are no strings attached. Even chat logs disappear. These features creates an easygoing atmosphere that communicates to users that they can move about unburdened and freely. Whatever was there a moment ago is now gone, and it’s on to the next new thing.
Fast-living and isolated from other platforms
Snapchat is not just about an accelerated mode of information consumption; in a way, it is also isolating, halfway shut off to the rest of the internet. While it is linked to, it contains no links, no ways of sharing stories directly to other platforms or making them accessible there. So a story has to first be downloaded and then uploaded to be hosted on Youtube, Facebook, or wherever.. Snapchat content only works within the app. The consumer is in control. They have the option to save and forward a Snap before its time runs out. By using a touch-screen, you are closer to the display, closer to the snaps, closer to the stories.
Snapchat is often seen by figures in the media industry as a kind of “hype app”, an impression that largely derives from the fact that the app is mostly used by young people. In the USA, it is the most popular app among teenagers. In Germany too, it is being taken up by wider and wider circles of users. There are, however, no figures to document its use. Snapchat is very reserved on this point, and does not issue user numbers for individual countries. On the other hand, the figures which they do release speak for themselves. Overall, 100 million people used the app every day in April 2016. That puts Snapchat on par with Twitter, which Bloomberg analysts say has 140 million active users. Snapchat’s figures are also impressive in terms of video use: 10 billion films are uploaded into the app every day (Facebook: 8 billion). Of course, this is related to the fact that a video on Snapchat has a maximum length of 10 seconds. Nonetheless, such figures mean that Snapchat ought to be taken seriously, as indeed it is.
A younger user demographic makes the app attractive to media partners
As soon as a new network or a new app is dubbed as “hot”, it will quickly be labelled the “new Facebook”. So it is with Snapchat. The implication that young people are simply going to leave Facebook and stampede over to Snapchat is an over-simplification of such dynamics—and simply wrong. Snapchat is not the new Facebook for a new generation of media users. The two platforms work in very different ways. No algorithms, no links, no stale content. Snapchat is actually closer to being the new TV. Snapchat channels function as their own little broadcasters. I flick through channels that I subscribe to, and I can fast-forward and rewind.
If my interest is piqued, I can use the Discovery function, which was added in the beginning of 2015. Here, Snapchat collaborates with media partners like CNN, Mashable or Buzzfeed to bring “snackable”, highly-optimized content to the app. According to industry experts, this is a highly lucrative angle for Snapchat. And it is lucrative for Snapchat’s media partners, because they can gain access to a platform with a uniquely young user profile.
This kind of media consumption is also attractive for other apps. In August 2016 Instagram introduced a Story function. Not only is the name borrowed from Snapchat, the functions—24-hour lifespans, video and image clips which can be edited—are more or less a direct copy. It is a clear declaration of war from Mark Zuckerberg aimed at Snapchat, and a sign that Snapchat is far from just another competitor which—like its snaps—will soon disappear from the market.