Tech prognosticators, myself included, love to wax poetic on the virtues of "ephemeral" media — short-lived photos and videos that exist opposite our obsession with permanent digital self-documentation. In a world where we’re eager to cross-reference our body fat with our to-do list, Snapchat messages are refreshingly temporary, existing for mere seconds and then gone forever.
The app’s most ingenious feature is that you can send snaps to multiple people without them all knowing it
But Snapchat, the ephemeral media trend's poster child, is popular for another reason. The app’s most ingenious and most inscrutable feature is that you can send snaps to multiple people without them all knowing it. "Was this snap meant just for me?" I ask myself on a hourly basis, since this information markedly affects the message of the message. If someone posts vacation photos to Facebook for hundreds of people to see, they are saying one thing, while sending a private SMS is another, but on Snapchat, the audience of any message is unclear. We’re increasingly turning to Snapchat to post photos — 28 percent of daily uploads among the top four photo-centric social networks come from Snapchat.
The oblivious, audience-less nature of Snapchat means something to a message’s recipient, but matters more to the sender. Snapchat alleviates the pressure of feeling judged for who you’ve shared something with, perhaps for the first time in the modern age of social networking, and this is what has made Snapchat so addictive. We often forget that the audience with whom you share something can mean as much as the message. It’s not just what photo you’re sharing, but who you’re sharing it with. It’s not just about the short-lived nature of the photo, but about the people briefly glimpsing it. Without an audience, snapbragging about the infinity pool you're dipping your toes into comes guilt-free. Every photo is sent directly from you to a friend, so it doesn't seem like you're bragging to the whole world.
On Facebook, a status update is posted to every one of your friends, but on Snapchat, it’s simple to only share the update with a select group, which is what I’ve found most users I know to be doing. Facebook allows you to create lists of friends to share with, but nobody has time to create them. Google+ lets you share a photo with specific Circles ("just like in real life," they say), but none of your friends are on Google+. Snapchat has offered the fresh start many of us needed, where sharing to just the right people feels frictionless.
Another part of Snapchat’s lightweight appeal is that message recipients can’t comment on a photo you’ve sent. Whereas Snapchat’s sending mechanism removes the pressure of deciding who to send a photo to online, the absence of comments makes it less stressful to decide what to post online. It may seem obvious, but on Facebook a condescending comment on a photo you’ve posted might make you feel bad, or dissuade you from posting again. There is no such thing on Snapchat. In fact, a response someone sends back to you isn’t tied in any way to the original message. There’s no "conversation" like there is on Facebook, Branch, Twitter, or Instagram — it’s a one-way sending experience. It’s pure sharing, the "lowest-commitment form of communication" as one friend of mine said, eliminating much of the stress we’ve come to find in modern social networks. It enables us to be the unbound attention-seekers we are, to find gratification in the act of sending without having to worry about potential responses.
It's pure sharing, the 'lowest-commitment form of communication'
What’s interesting is that Snapchat isn’t thought of as a social network. It’s presented more as a "photo chat" platform, like WhatsApp or SMS. Somehow Snapchat stumbled upon the holy grail every social network has been trying to figure out: a less burdensome way to let users share with specific people. There are no lists or Circles to create — it’s just a few taps on the names of friends. Snapchat, like Path, understands that in reality there aren’t very many friends and family you want to share with on a daily basis, and most of these people are in your phone contacts. There are also no comments, or parents to stumble upon a photo you’ve posted. The company incidentally also discovered an ingenious group messaging dynamic, a means to share a one-way message with multiple people.
If Snapchat can maintain its sense of intimacy between users, it may have inadvertently created an entirely new medium for communicating using "one-way" messages valuable not for their expiration dates, but for their ambiguity of audience. "I wish Snapchat had a feature that let you send a picture to everyone," a friend said to me, which sounds ironic. On Facebook, posting a photo to your entire network makes it seem like you’re trying pretty hard to get attention. On Snapchat, you gain all the benefits (the eyes of others, looking at you) with none of the costs.