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The decline of Snapchat and the secret joy of internet ghost towns

As fewer and fewer of my friends use the platform, Snapchat has become a haven from the grinding utility of the internet

Illustrations by William Joel

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It’s difficult to believe now, but there was a time when the internet was nowhere instead of everywhere. Before the social internet had mapped so completely onto our social lives that attempting to separate the two or call life away from the internet “real” became a ridiculous endeavor, online was where we went to escape, to be unseen, to be nowhere.

When I started a LiveJournal in 2002, a few of my friends also had them, and more would eventually join. But the point of the thing, the real heartmeat of it, was the strangers there. When LiveJournal was the primary way I existed on the internet, what occupied my time was not my friends’ accounts of their days or their vague, passive-aggressive posts about the drama of which I was already aware. Rather, it was falling into a rabbit hole of total strangers’ personal confessions and vague dramas just as small and unimportant as those unfolding within my own friend group. But these were infinitely more interesting because they were happening to someone I had never met, who didn’t know I existed.

When I made my own humiliatingly verbose and confessional posts, I never imagined the audience to be the few real-life friends who also used the website. I was often embarrassed or even annoyed when these friends referenced those posts in offline conversations. What I loved about LiveJournal, in my early online days, was that it felt like a public space in which I got to talk to no one, a place where I could yell into the void. Putting any part of one’s self online is always a cry for attention to some degree, but sometimes, against all logic, the desire is just as much for the opposite. I want to confess things out loud and be ignored. I want to say the things I can only say if I believe that I am nowhere.

What has sucked all of the joy out of the social internet in its current form is its exhortation to be useful

The greatest joy of LiveJournal, and other similar proto-social networks and chat rooms, was their uselessness. There was no reason for any of us to be there, not really. Online sociality may have addressed loneliness, but in its early form, it did as much to simultaneously heighten it, isolating those of us who sought out artificial social lives in two-dimensional typefaces. That uselessness was precisely the thing that the internet offered: this was a place you visited to get nothing done, a place where nothing counted or lasted with benefits or consequences.

Perhaps more than anything else, what has sucked all of the joy out of the social internet in its current form is its exhortation to be useful. We have arrived at a version where everything seems to be just another version of LinkedIn. Every online space is supposed to get you a job or a partner or a stronger personal brand so you can accomplish the big, public-record goals of life. The public marketplace is everywhere. It’s an interactive and immersive CV, an archive. It all counts, and it all matters.

First in the era of America Online, and then in the era of LiveJournal and micro-blogging, the internet was at least partly an escape. It was a place where the boundaries of real life, in which everything was more or less a job interview, could be sloughed off and one could imagine the internet as a quiet, uninhabited space of whispered intimacies. In this era of hyper-usefulness, what seems rarest and most valuable online are spaces that offer, however illusorily, a return to this original uselessness. There are places where, against the constant obligation to be seen and remembered, we might get to be unseen, unrecorded, and forgotten.

It’s not exactly easy to see how many people you follow or how many people follow you on Snapchat, but my guess is that I currently have maybe 150 followers. I follow about 100. But for the last few months when I open the app, I see posts from between two to five of those people. If I post a story, which I do with lesser and lesser frequency these days, seven people view it, at most. These numbers have dwindled steadily, and now my Snapchat has started to feel like an abandoned lot where a building once stood.

The app has never really been my thing. I’ve used it on and off for several years, but only in its recent, ongoing deterioration have I suddenly found it to be a compelling place online. As Snapchat alienates its users and fades further into irrelevance, it has begun to feel, as many failing social platforms do near the end, like a place to access the uselessness and unimportance, the sense of yelling into the void that the internet once offered before what we did here mattered.

When Snapchat first appeared, the buzz surrounding it was based on one feature: the photos you sent on this app disappeared. In 2011, every other form of social media was permanent and archivable, but before Stories or Memories, whatever you sent someone on Snapchat vanished a few seconds after the recipient viewed it, like it had never existed. In 2016, Instagram launched its own version of Stories, which the CEO freely admitted was an exact copy of Snapchat’s Stories feature. The ephemerality that had made Snapchat unique had become popular enough to be cannibalized by other platforms in the hopes of replicating Snapchat’s success.

It worked: today, ephemerality is a standard feature of social media, one we no longer think of as magic, yet everything still has consequences. We are well-aware that nothing really disappears, that everything can be saved, archived, screenshotted. On an internet where privacy has all but vanished and everything “disappears,” it turns out that the more rare and valuable treasure might not be the promise of ephemerality, but of useless spaces. The closest thing we might find to something on the internet that is actually secret is not posts that disappear, but rather a website at the end of its relevance, one that nobody cares about, where nobody is watching.

As recently as summer 2016, Snapchat was having some sort of renaissance. New users were adults almost as often as they were teens. Even The New York Times praised it as “the place where you go to be yourself.” I used Snapchat to document a trip to Savannah and Chattanooga to see my partner’s family, a slow, sweaty summer in New York, and a few visits to Philadelphia, where my parents live. I also documented my face, bedecked with flower crowns and cat ears, with filters that shaved my down my jawline, shortened my chin, and made my skin as smooth and light as glass.

People I knew flocked to Snapchat that summer, and it soon became much like any other social media platform (albeit with more flattering filters). Photos, videos, and texts still disappeared, but archival functions now existed, making it possible to save anything one wanted to save — both of one’s own posts and other users’. People referenced each other’s snaps in posts on Twitter and encouraged followers from other spaces to come over to this one. Snapchat was no more private than the rest of the internet, and like much of the internet, something originally intended for kids was overrun with 20- and 30-something media and tech professionals competing to see how well they could master it.

I lapsed out of using it later that year, partly because too many people had amassed there for it to feel meaningfully different from Twitter, and partly because the few people I really cared about — close friends, my partner — had gravitated back toward other apps. I revisited it about a year later, when a few of those people started using Snapchat frequently again. Even in that relatively short amount time, the space had already become noticeably less populous. The buzz of activity around it was gone.

Snapchat had a bad year. Its profits and stock prices were down, and stories about the company’s questionable spending were being published after its holiday celebrations. Instagram’s Stories feature had more than double the number of daily users. Kylie Jenner, Chrissy Teigen, and, most significantly, Rihanna, had all abandoned the platform in recent months, along with numerous other celebrities. The famous and non-famous alike had been driven away by a redesign so terrible that it generated a petition to restore the old version, which garnered more than a million signatures. Snapchat already seemed both desperate and irrelevant. No one was arguing that you should make an account anymore or that there was any particular reason to be on it at all.

The end-times experience of Snapchat is the most I’ve ever enjoyed it

There were fewer and fewer people I knew active as the months went on. But that didn’t make a difference because the way I was using it had changed. Everyone I followed and their stories had receded. I rarely checked anything other than my chats, and soon, the app’s whole function was to for me to talk to one particular group of friends. The more the outside world departed the platform, the more it made the group chat inside of it feel like a secret clubhouse. It felt as though we were having a private conversation in another room in the house, far away from where the party was happening. I continued to use it to talk to the eight people I wanted to talk to — which became six, and then five, and then four, and then three — as members of the group gave up on the redesign and the app’s many other failures. But I still didn’t leave because the end-times experience of Snapchat is the most I’ve ever enjoyed it.

I posted about the things I would never post about on other platforms: writing, the gym, money, endless photos of my face. All of these are things I know make “bad” social media content. They’re the kinds of posts that generate little engagement, annoy the people reading them, and embarrass the person who made them. They were things I felt private about, parts of my life that were at once legitimately vulnerable and very boring. They were exactly the kind of things I might have posted about on LiveJournal as a teenager, up late, opening her heart to the void. For a brief moment, as everybody abandons the sinking ship, Snapchat genuinely feels like a place where no one might be listening in, like it might really be the void, rather than the sum of everyone else’s phones.

One of my friends who is still resolutely on Snapchat has told me that it gives her, “a space to be visible just to some people, to not have to share everything with everyone in order to share anything with anyone. That, to me, is too high a cost, and it’s a cost that so many other platforms require you to pay.” Another, who finally abandoned the app in recent months, mentioned how she had loved the smallness of it. “I had maybe a hundred people viewing my snaps, so the responses stayed so much less creepy than other places. There’s no way to scroll through a timeline or look at a grid to see if someone is good or bad. That means you end up following mostly people you know, which is so nice because then it’s just a little chat.”

Since the outcry against the redesign, Snapchat has rolled out yet another version of the app, responding in part to the significantly slowed growth that resulted from its new version. The new redesign is supposed to go back to basics and return to the things people loved about the old version and missed in the new one. The previous redesign — built in only six weeks — separated people you knew from celebrities and brands. On the surface, this was meant bring the focus back to interpersonal friendships, but instead, it had an alienating effect. As a not-famous person, it seemed to say that Snapchat wasn’t for us.

This isn’t why people are leaving the platform; they’re leaving because it became difficult to use, disrupting the expectations and patterns that users had built up over time, making the experience a flailing one where it was impossible to find what you actually wanted to see. This redesign of the redesign may still save Snapchat and bring it back to robust growth and relevance. Perhaps this won’t be the death of the app so much as a passing era of growing pains. My experience is limited to a very small group of users, even at my most populous experience of the app. But for the moment, it still feels like a dead space on the internet, a place people have increasingly forgotten. In that, it offers something far more precious than the ephemerality it intended to give us.

For the moment, Snapchat feels like a dead space, something far more precious than the ephemerality it intended to give us

The internet is full of consequences now because real life is full of consequences. The membrane between online and real life has long since dissolved. As Snapchat fades into irrelevance, it has less and less to do with our real lives, the ones that count and matter, the ones where we have to be accountable for each action and each sentence. These almost-gone spaces can feel like a party about how you’re leaving town in the morning, replete with a last-night-on-earth sort of permissiveness.

Peach, which never truly caught on and has for most of its life only existed as a barely alive platform, functions as the same kind of private clubhouse for people who use it, a small party where no one is listening. Vine was always great, but it was perhaps at its best in the last weeks before its rumored shutdown, when everyone on it seemed to throw rules and caution to the wind, when every Vine felt like it might be the very last one. Tumblr is a little like this, too. It now feels like an abandoned space that was once a robust destination, and it now feels like a secret. 

When websites become useless, they become a reminder of what was lost when the internet gained purpose, function, and profit. We are all still searching for an online space where we can yell our secrets and be unseen and disappear. These opportunities now often exist only in dying online spaces, the last place where no one is looking.