How Snapchat will make us more honest

commentary The ephemeral messaging service's new "Stories" feature is a game-changer for social networking behavior. Here's how it will make our digital personas more genuine.

Donna Tam/CNET

Before yesterday, I had sent less than five messages using the Snapchat app. To be honest, I didn't even know that a photo or video sent through the app and equipped with its risk-encouraging countdown clock was called a "snap."

But with the introduction of the Stories feature Thursday -- the ability to collect viewable moments in a personal timeline that sticks around for that day only -- Snapchat has become an overnight fascination of mine. It is, in my eyes, one of the most pivotal social-networking additions in recent memory.

While Instagram preps its network for the introduction of photo and video ads and Facebook sits pretty -- having figured out the mobile conundrum plaguing its stock price -- Snapchat went ahead and introduced a truly game-changing feature into the mix.

It may not seem like much on the surface, but Stories is important. It bundles the off-the-cuff, genuine, and downright more honest ways in which we capture and share moments that we know will not last with an easier, less direct delivery mechanism. In essence, it combined the medium of Instagram with a stripped down Facebook profile, providing an ever-changing window into somebody's life that's not about chasing likes, bragging about accomplishments, or capturing sunsets and silhouettes.

It's a lifecasting tool with none of the usual shame or social stigma.

Snapchat's growing up moment
Prior to Stories, Snapchat was an app I looked at once a month, save for the few instances when someone texted me with, "Do you use Snapchat?" I would typically respond with a "nah not really," open up the app, remember that I did indeed friend Taco Bell for a promotional perk, and look at my backlog of "snaps." There would be a slew of selfies, shoddy video where I could barely discern what was happening, and a torrent of grainy photos with crude finger doodles smeared all over them.

Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

In about 10 seconds, each one would disappear forever (well, sort of). Needless to say, I just didn't get it. Sure, it was great for the sexting crowd. But I wasn't one of the cynical types to write off the service as one exclusively designed for shameless teenagers.

To me, it always seemed as if Snapchat was on the cusp of something greater, something more true to life than the Facebook status or Instagram photo but was never quite there by simply offering impermanence. Founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy didn't set out to change the world, but they aren't exactly in it for the money or else they would have designed something more advertiser-friendly.

And while they're not armchair philosophers trying to influence the behavioral landscape of humanity, they are really smart guys who knew that there was a gaping hole in our social network use. With Stories, I feel like the Stanford-born company on its way to a $1 billion valuation has finally hit the mark.

The fluidity with which Stories fits within the Snapchat ecosystem almost completely washes away any preconceptions that the service was strictly a sexting-oriented and immature fascination. Now, the idea of ephemerality is fully realized.

Using Stories: A lesson in letting go
Yesterday, I added eight moments to my Story. I can't post any of them here because they no longer exist. And in fact, I wouldn't want to. That's precisely the point.

Sure, snaps can be exquisitely crafted images or well-composed videos, but more often than not they're mundane, silly, and downright pointless. But in being so disposable, they're more real and more true to one's self. I took photos of figurines on my desk, shaky video of my pleasant walk to lunch, and a GIF looping on the front page of Reddit off my laptop screen.

Without the need to feel like you're crafting art at every corner -- and without Snapchat's former impetus that its messages be sent to specific people or my entire friend list -- it was far easier to give a more genuine interpretation of how I see my day to day experience. And without any feedback loop of likes or comments reaffirming my decision to share, it was more natural to do so unapologetically and without discretion.

Adding to Snapchat's experiential dominance over Instagram from a medium standpoint is the fact that Snapchat is far more accommodating to crappy video, far and away the most common quality level of our smartphone-captured films. Instagram, on the other hand, is not so kind. Often, I'll scroll through my feed and blow past the videos because they take time, and who's to say whether or not I'll feel compelled to like it at the end.

The lack of video love -- most videos I see in my feed get a few if any likes -- keeps others from using the format in their own Instagram, and I've found that out of 20 or 30 posts in my feed, less than five will move. Snapchat is an almost even distribution in my experience, and five out of the eight snaps I did in my day with Stories were video. Simply put, there's less pressure to get it right and less reason to try to impress.

At the end of the day, no one's life is truly as interesting as their Instagram makes it out to be. And no one is as thoughtful, witty, or clever comeback-capable as their Facebook or Twitter makes them out to be. At least not consistently, day in and day out. That's where Snapchat lives, in the everyday where life drudges on and where often times we face boredom or, at worst, loneliness and the feeling of time slipping away.

With Instagram, I feel like there's always someone breathing down my neck. The world is always watching, ready to judge you with a like or lack thereof. With Facebook, you're compelled to craft the perfect version of yourself, the person you'd like to be digitally that you can't or aren't in real life.

With static profiles, "you have to worry about how this new content fits in with your online persona that's supposed to be you. It's uncomfortable and unfortunate," Spiegel recently told The Verge.

And he couldn't be more right. His suggested alternative, Snapchat, is one of the best answers to that gnawing social media conundrum. "Your Story never ends and it's always changing. The end of your Story today is the beginning of your Story tomorrow," the site's blog post reads.

It doesn't get more honest than that, and it's about time our social media presences can relax and reflect that instead of constantly aspiring to something less true.

About the author

Nick Statt is a staff writer for CNET. He previously wrote for ReadWrite and was a news associate at the social magazine app Flipboard. He spends a questionable amount of his free time contemplating his relationship with video games while continuously exploring the convergence of tech, science and pop culture.

 

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