Gone in Sixty Seconds: The Sociology of Snapchat

Matthew JohnsonSnapchat, the mobile app that lets users send "self-destructing" photos, has the distinction of being the only digital tool that does not have a single redeeming feature. While the moral panic associated with blogs, cell phones, social networks and online games has largely faded in grudging recognition of their more positive uses (indeed, research shows that many parents have actually helped their children lie about their age register for Facebook accounts), Snapchat is seen as the Q-tip of the digital age: its sole function is to do the thing that you're warned not to do on the box.

In the case of Snapchat, of course, that purpose is sexting. Despite claims from the app's creators that it wasn't intended to "make sexting safer," Snapchat's launch in September 2011 was immediately followed by dozens of articles warning parents that teens would see it as just that. Many of these articles also pointed out the ways in which a photo could be saved before it self-destructed (one feature that has come under particular criticism is the "screenshot warning" which notifies the sender if the person receiving the photo has made a copy -- but doesn't give them anything they can do about it). But what if all these articles are (mostly) wrong? What if it's moments of silliness and embarrassment that young people want to erase, rather than sex? What if knowing that somebody made a copy of your photo really does help protect your privacy? Could it be that young people know something about online safety and privacy that the rest of us are only starting to learn?

Let's start with the assumption that youth are using Snapchat for sexting. The app's creators, Stanford students Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, have always maintained that the app was created to the prevent long-term consequences of posting photos, such as party pictures turning up when being vetted by a prospective employer. Rather than enabling sexting, Snapchat was meant to eliminate the tiresome Sunday-morning ritual of de-tagging photos taken over the previous forty-eight hours. While there may be reason to doubt that sexting wasn't part of what Spiegel and Murphy's intentions were for Snapchat -- a lot of the advertising images for it, especially early on, featured sexualized images of teenage girls -- MediaSmarts' Young Canadians in a Wired World research supports the idea that youth are at least as concerned about images that might be embarrassing or compromising as they are about sexual content. Several of the participants in our focus groups made comments similar to this one: "If I take a picture of me doing something stupid or something and then when I apply for a job interview they look through my pictures and stuff, and see me doing something stupid." Another pointed out the possibility that these unflattering photos could lead to conflict: "Sometimes it's really embarrassing, if you're making, like, the stupidest face in a picture and your friends posts it on Facebook, that's gonna start some drama if they won't take it down or people have already seen it." And, indeed, recent research has shown that only 13 percent of Snapchat users aged 18 to 29 had used the app to send sexts – a figure roughly the same as sexting using other platforms, according to most estimates.

That doesn't change the fact that the temporary nature of a Snapchat photo is largely illusory, but it does provide a hint as to why the app is so popular with youth. Caleb Hearon, a teen who reviewed Snapchat for the youth marketing site YPulse, explains its appeal this way:  "My generation is known to share 'everything', but that’s a big misconception -- we only appear to be posting everything. Most of the time uploads and photo sharing on social media sites are thought-out and privacy settings with lots of filtering options are set on our profiles like a mathematical formula." Teens like Snapchat because it really is as casual and ephemeral as other social networks pretend to be: you can send a photo of yourself having fun or looking silly without it having to be part of building and maintaining your online identity.

As well, Snapchat takes the same approach to privacy that teens do. Unlike most social networks and photo-sharing platforms, Snapchat doesn't help users control their privacy through technological means, but through social ones. Sally Ike, a university student interviewed for a Businessweek article on Snapchat, described being caught making a screenshot as "a major faux pas," an attitude which encapsulates the preference expressed by our focus group participants for using social pressure to control their online information. Most of those who talked about trying to take control of an unflattering image spoke in terms similar to this Toronto teen: "I usually talk to them at school or face to face asking them, ‘Did you post that?’ and they’re like, 'Oh I’m so sorry, I’ll take you out or I’ll take off the tag or whatever.'"

Adults -- and particularly parents -- may be skeptical of this approach, but several focus group participants reported success with it. Others said that they would immediately take down a photo if asked to, like this Calgary teen: "I don't want… to be rude to anybody or anything… If it's rude to a certain kind of person we're going to take it down." Other research supports the effectiveness of simply asking to have photos or other unflattering material taken down. The 2010 Pew study "Reputation and Social Media" found that four-fifths of people who asked to have something taken down from the Internet were successful. The alert that Snapchat sends when someone makes a screenshot isn't intended to make it impossible to save a photo, but to send a social signal that doing so would be rude.

That highlights what is perhaps the most interesting thing about Snapchat, which is that it places the onus to behave properly on the receiver of an image, rather than the sender. By using the app, the sender is signaling that the image is not meant to be saved or copied (something that might be seen as hostile by friends or romantic partners if it was stated outright) and the receiver is expected to understand and abide by that message. This echoes the ways in which approaches to digital literacy education have changed, as we've increasingly realized that while it's valuable for youth to learn how to protect themselves and control their privacy, it's essential to teach them to behave ethically online. In the same way, bullying interventions have moved from "bully-proofing" approaches to ones based on building empathy and using social norms to prevent bullying. As parents and educators, we need to teach youth to treat all photos as though they were sent with Snapchat, by only copying or forwarding them unless the sender has given them clear permission.