Snapchat more than just a flash in the pan

FOR 13-year-old Coral Fairchild, Snapchat trumps old-style text messaging as the way to socialise with friends in the mobile internet age.

The California girl adds moustaches to faces in pictures or speech bubbles using touchscreen features that allow people to draw on Snapchat images being sent.

“You can take a regular selfie and customise it into a princess or a unicorn or whatever you want,” she explains. “It’s just a more fun way to communicate.”

But if the message turns out to be too embarrassing, no problem. It will disappear in seconds.

The California-based service has gained notoriety for the app that lets people send photos or video snippets timed to self-destruct 10 seconds or less after being opened.

Snapchat has rocketed to popularity since the initial app was released in Sept 2011. Its growth initially sparked fears that, in a world of selfies, it would provide a false sense of security for teenagers thinking of sexting risque photos.

That concern appears unfounded, according to Matthew Johnson, of digital literacy group MediaSmarts.

“There is no evidence that Snapchat is being used any more recklessly than any other message service,” he says. “Young people expect their friends and peers to do the right thing and rely on social pressure when it goes wrong.

“In general, their instincts are very good, and they have in many ways a better handle on the social and emotional aspects of these technologies than we tend to think.”

Conversations based on ephemeral images also reduce the potential for misunderstanding by providing expressions and other visual cues absent in email or basic text messages, according to Johnson.

“Many adults can relate to reading an email and not knowing whether the person who sent it was being angry or sarcastic,” he says.

“Move that to text messaging where there is a limit to the number of characters you can use and the back-and-forth is faster, and there is always the possibility of something exploding because someone misunderstands something.”

The mere fact someone is using Snapchat usually sends a signal that they are being playful and not serious, Johnson says. “Snapchat is essentially one big ‘smiley’.”

The start-up made news when it rejected a $3bn (€2.2bn) offer from Facebook, presumably because its founders believed it is worth more.

Other reports said Snapchat delivers about 400m photos or videos daily from users, although the number is believed to count each time a recipient opens a file, possibly counting some messages more than once.

Snapchat skews young due to the fact it is aimed at people who prefer messaging from mobile gadgets.

Snapchat chief Evan Spiegel recently said 70% of Snapchat users are women.

The company’s in-house sociology researcher, Nathan Jurgenson, sees the service as a natural place for pictures that won’t return to haunt people. “It’s easy to underestimate the significance of injecting more ephemerality into social media,” says Jurgenson.

“Part of the Snapchat appeal is that it serves as a social cue that something shouldn’t be saved, not that it can’t. Young people say they will use it for something silly or a little embarrassing that they still want to share just with friends.”

Jurgenson says the fact messages are timed to destruct means people will give them more attention: “When you look fast, you look hard.”

Snapchat recently added a stories feature that strings together a series of snaps to create a narrative that is available for repeated viewing by recipients for 24 hours.

But even though the messages disappear, it is quite easy to copy Snapchat messages or pictures before they vanish, and research shows young people are aware of that, according to Johnson.

He expects the merging of pictures and text to become the new standard in messaging, while Coral Fairchild portrays Snapchat as the “great next step” in mobile communications.

“I don’t Snapchat anyone I don’t know; that would be weird,” Coral says, noting she would make an exception for Harry Styles of One Direction. “He wouldn’t get my ugly faces, unless we were best friends.”


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