Snapchat is one of the most popular photo-messaging smartphone applications available today, and it’s different from other apps in unique ways. Unlike other photo-sharing apps like Instagram or messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or even traditional texting, messages on Snapchat can only be seen for a short time, and disappear after they’re viewed. Communication and technology researchers call this feature auto-deletion: users take a photo – a “snap”- and send it directly to other users. Snap senders can choose how long others can look at their photo before it disappears (between 1 and 10 seconds).
The auto-deletion feature might seem frustrating, but it’s made Snapchat one of the world’s most widely used smartphone photo-messaging apps. As of November 2015, 47% of U.S. college students and 41% of teens use the app, with those numbers continuously increasing in parallel to the increasing ubiquity of smartphone ownership. Even in an app market that’s increasingly crowded with messaging and photo-sharing tools, users are jumping at the chance to talk with their friends on a platform that will allow them to forget what they said yesterday, or even a few minutes ago. So how does the auto-deletion feature of Snapchat make it such a popular communication tool?
Researchers from the Social Media Lab at Cornell set out to find an answer to this question. A team of graduate and undergraduate students interviewed 25 Snapchat users about how and why they use the app. Though people of all ages use the app, it’s most popular among people in their late teens and early twenties, so study participants were chosen from a population of college students. After providing informed consent, participants were asked what they share and why, and how they think auto-deletion changes how they use the app, especially in comparison to other smartphone applications they use. The results from this study, entitled “Automatic Archiving versus Default Deletion: What Snapchat Tells Us about Ephemerality in Design”, were presented at the 2016 ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) in San Francisco, CA and will be published in the 2016 CSCW Proceedings.
The results of the study show that the unique kind of communication that Snapchat allows (and perhaps the key to its popularity) is tied to the auto-deletion feature. This intriguing new app takes the kind of ephemeral communication that we’re accustomed to in face-to-face interactions and transfers it to the smartphone platform. However, while auto-deletion may have helped make Snapchat popular, it also has some downsides that researchers and designers need to address.
Ephemerality plays a big role in what kinds of Snaps users choose to share. The research team found that users mostly send pictures that are glimpses into their daily lives. Selfies, photos of food or pets, and shots of everyday objects, tasks, and surroundings are all popular snaps. As one user said, Snapchat is used “to inform others who you are with, where you are. To share information, to make someone laugh.” Because these photos disappear after only a few seconds, users can share tiny peeks into their everyday lives without cluttering up their friends’ Facebook feeds or text message inboxes.
Other users take advantage of the ephemeral nature of Snapchat messages to send photos of themselves. One user chooses Snapchat over a more permanent platform to tell friends how they’re feeling that day: “If I really think I look good on that day, I will send it to everyone. Snapchat is only five seconds long and I feel it’s more acceptable than Facebook.” Another participant makes use of the auto-deletion feature to “send […] really ugly faces” back and forth with their close friends, which is “really fun.” The information and content shared on Snapchat may seem relatively unimportant, but research tells us that “mundane talk” is vital to building and maintaining relationships. Snapchat makes “mundane talk” easy and accessible to anyone with a smartphone.
While task-focused communication is important in getting things done, the ability to share small slices of life on Snapchat can bring people together in important ways. Because content disappears quickly, people feel that they are able to share more than they would in a more ‘permanent’ medium (e.g. Facebook). Snapchat allows users to keep in touch without being too self-conscious about how they present themselves. Study participants reported that they enjoy being able to have an interaction where they can be their true selves without worrying about the repercussions of their exchanges. Like being in a room alone with your best friends, Snapchat users can share the little details of their lives and make silly faces to their heart’s content without worrying about what others will think. These kinds of small, short, and intimate interactions – where the fact that you’re taking the time to make contact with a friend is more important than what you actually share – are vital to building and sustaining close relationships, and assisting these interactions has made Snapchat wildly popular.
Different Tasks, Different Apps
Snapchat is a great platform for “mundane talk,” but it’s not ideal for all types of communication. The researchers found that users save conversations that focus on a specific task or outcome, such as planning a meeting or solving a problem, for other media. As one study participant put it, “I don’t plan through Snapchat. I definitely [make] more plans through text, or GroupMe.” When it comes to actually taking action, another participant finds Snapchat too informal. “If something was actually wrong, […] you would text someone about it versus Snapchatting about it.” Snapchat users save serious conversations for text or email. They also prefer to organize and make plans over apps that leave a record, so they have something to refer back to. This leaves Snapchat itself to be used for more playful, informal communication.
Awareness of a post’s potential audience can also make a big difference in whether or not users choose Snapchat for their communication goals. While a photo posted to Facebook or Instagram is visible to all of the user’s friends or followers, Snapchat allows users to pick precisely the audience they want for each snap. “There are definitely things on Snapchat that […] I wouldn’t want on Instagram or Facebook. Especially Facebook, I want to take cute photos to make them think that I’m somewhat put together”, says one participant. The ability to ensure that a potentially embarrassing photo will not linger or be passed around makes Snapchat ideal for users who want to keep their potential audiences separate, like one user who says that the app is a good place to share things “you wouldn’t want … to be on Facebook for employers and family members.” While Snapchat is for trusted friends, users choose Instagram or Facebook when they share images or text that they feel is appropriate for a larger audience.
To Screenshot Or Not?
Snapchat’s auto-deletion feature makes it clear that the app is for “showing not sharing”; that is, the receiver of a Snap can see it for a short time, but not keep it or access it again. The user who shares a photo retains a sense of ownership over that photo, meaning that they’re still ultimately in control of who else gets to see it. However, smartphones have one feature that can potentially throw a wrench in the works of Snapchat’s carefully designed auto-deletion: screenshots. Smartphone users can easily save anything that’s on their phone’s screen, including snaps that the sender may wish would go away.
Snapchat and its users combat this ability through a combination of technical features and social norms. The app can sense when someone takes a screenshot of a snap, and will then notify the person who sent it. These notifications are important to users who send photos with the assumption that they will disappear. Many assume that others “snapshot” their photos in order to share them with others, which is seen as a violation of the social norm against saving privately shared photos. Some participants in the study discussed taking real-world actions to make sure snapshots don’t get saved or shared. As one user said, “I would either text them or in person, just in a mature way say, ‘It’s really important to me that you delete that photo,’ and hope that they delete it.”
Norms are different for certain types of content, however. Snapshots are more acceptable for content that’s funny or interesting without being too personal or too mundane – photos that are “out of the ordinary. Not just a picture of someone’s face and hello. Either like a funny message or a cool picture… Something that you want to look at in the future.” As content gets more personal, screenshots become more taboo – users said that they wouldn’t screenshot photos containing personal information or other intimate content. Snapshots are also more acceptable in closer relationships, with several participants stating that they’d be more comfortable with best friends saving their photos than with acquaintances doing so. The carefully constructed norms, in combination with Snapchat’s screenshot notification feature, means that users of the app generally feel secure in sending photos to others.
What’s Next for Ephemerality?
Snapchat is unique among social platforms in that it doesn’t keep the content that users share; instead allowing it to be deleted after a short time. This facilitates the kind of interactions that have long been the norm in face-to-face communication, but are virtually unheard of in websites and apps that keep records of conversations and photos shared.
While the ephemeral nature of Snapchat makes it a great tool for strengthening and maintaining close relationships, the auto-deletion feature isn’t always great for everyone. Some have voiced concerns that the app could be used to send photos or messages that are bullying, harassing, sexually inappropriate, or otherwise harmful. Teenagers are especially susceptible to these risks, and parents and teachers are rightfully asking what can be done to protect these populations from potentially damaging content. The easy answer here is the one that’s used for all kinds of new technologies – talk to young adults about the app and who they communicate with, and make sure they understand the risks and benefits. However, new strategies may be needed to help regulate use of a technology where harmful messages don’t stick around.
Will we be seeing more auto-deleting apps in the future? This study’s authors aren’t sure. There are a lot of design possibilities to explore in this space – what about ephemeral conversations with strangers? Photos or text that can only be seen a few times, instead of once or forever? Ephemeral content delivered based on physical location, social network characteristics, or personal interests? As Snapchat and other apps like it gain popularity, designers and communication researchers have many questions and answers to pursue. And while auto-deletion may have a bright, or at least intriguing, future in the design of social websites and apps, tools that keep records of our interactions will likely not lose their traditional pride of place on our phones’ home screens.
Danielle Boris, Bin Xu, and Pamara Chang contributed to this story.