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A Snapchat Explainer for Non-Millennials

Kids these days.


Wondering how mobile messaging app Snapchat could possibly be valued at a bajillion dollars?

Wondering what Snapchat even is, or how it works? Or why anyone would want to use it?

Don’t feel bad. Snapchat is really popular among 13- to 24-year-olds, but if you grew up using a landline telephone, or you don’t associate the name “Kennedy” with some guy that Taylor Swift dated, there’s a chance you just don’t get Snapchat.

And so I present to you, oh people-whose-lives-have-not-been-intermittently-interrupted-by-disappearing-mobile-photos, a conversation with an imaginary consumer about Snapchat. (See also: Talking 4K TVs with an Imaginary Consumer.)

Hey, even if you are part of the loosely-defined demographic born between the 1980s and early 1990s, you might still need a crash course in Snapchat. Read away! Just don’t let your optimistic, entitled friends see you reading this.

What is Snapchat?

Funny you should ask! Snapchat is a free mobile app that lets you snap and send “disappearing” photos to friends from your smartphone. It’s part of a larger trend right now in mobile messaging. The same way that some tech consumers have, in the past, relied on desktop messaging apps or social networks to stay in touch with friends, Snapchat is a way for people to communicate on mobile phones.

It first launched in 2011, and now around 700 million snaps are sent every day. The app may possibly be worth $10 billion dollars.

What? That’s insane. Why is it so popular?

Some people really like its “ephemerality.” This is a buzzword that is thrown around a lot to add weight to what is, at the end of the day, a disappearing-photo app, and not a cure for cancer.

On the flip side, not all mobile photos are worth holding on to, and Snapchat offers users a way to send a quick glimpse of what they’re doing at that moment. When you send a snap, you put a timer on it — anywhere from one to 10 seconds. When the recipient opens the message, the countdown begins, and the photo will disappear after the time runs out.

Sounds to me like the kind of app people might use for … nefarious things.

I’m sure some people do, but not everyone on Snapchat uses it for … that. I’ve sent and received a bunch of snaps, and they’re all really tame … boring, even. Although, one time a friend did send me a picture of Dick Van Dyke and said it was a “Dick pic.” (Millennials: Wikipedia page for Dick Van Dyke.)

Okay, now I’m sort of curious. What kind of mobile phone do I have to have? And how much does it cost?

Snapchat is free, and it runs on iOS and Android devices. I asked about Windows phone, because I always ask about Windows, and the company said there is no Windows Phone app in the works. Poor Windows Phone.

I just downloaded the app. How do I find and add friends?

There are a couple of ways to find friends: You can either give the app access to your phone number and smartphone contact list, and it will find friends for you that way; or you can find friends by searching for their Snapchat names in the app.

Okay, I added a few friends. What next?

There are three basic steps: First, you snap a photo from within the app; then, you set the timer in the lower left-hand corner of the screen; and finally, you tap on the arrow on the lower right-hand corner to send to a friend or group of friends.

Can I send stuff like video and text?

You can, actually. If you’d like to send a video clip, you simply hold down the virtual button that you’d normally use to take a still image in the app, and it will start to record video — up to 10 seconds.

You can write stuff over your images, too. You can scrawl stuff using the virtual pen in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, or you can add a limited amount of text by pressing on the middle of the captured image and typing in the caption box that appears.

You can also use Snapchat for text messaging. But in order to start a text dialogue, you have to send someone a Snapchat pic first. After that, you go to your Snapchat log, swipe right on that person’s name, and start text messaging.

For a simple messaging app, its interface is actually … sort of confusing.

I agree. I often tap on the three little bars in the lower right-hand corner, expecting that it will be some sort of menu list or the activity log; instead it’s a friends list. The activity log is accessed through a nondescript square icon, and the settings wheel, for some reason, is located within that option. The app’s layout doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.

Is that it? Can I do other things in Snapchat?

Once again, this app isn’t especially deep, but you can do other fun things with it. You can add emojis from your smartphone’s emoji keyboard. If you swipe right after you’ve snapped an image, you can add filters, time of day, weather info and other data to the picture.

There is also a “Story” feature within the app that lets friends view a designated snap an unlimited number of times within a 24-hour period. You assign this to a snap by tapping on the box-with-a-plus at the bottom of the snapped-image screen.

My friend just sent me a Snapchat, and I took a screenshot of it before the picture went away. Sooo … the pictures don’t really “disappear,” do they?

Good question. Yes, your friends can take screenshots of the pictures you send them, and you can screenshot their Snapchats, too. If someone does take a screenshot of your snap, the app will indicate this in your activity log.

But I think your bigger question is around whether the snaps ever really go away. I asked the company about this, and a representative said that once a snap is opened and has disappeared, the company no longer has that data on its servers. The only time a snap might linger is if it’s unopened or pending; in that case, it will remain in queue, and on the company’s servers, for 30 days. Snapchat says that in cases of legal warrants, it will work with authorities, but again, the snaps might no longer be on Snapchat’s servers.

Could digital forensics turn up something, though? It’s always possible.

Should I expect to see ads in Snapchat, like I do all over Facebook these days?

Some brands are coming up with creative ways to use Snapchat, but you won’t see any ads in the app — at least, not right now.

I just ran a Google search for Snapchat, and some unflattering things came up about its founder. What’s his deal?

Oh, about that. The irony escapes no one that the young creator of this wildly popular app for disappearing messages probably wishes he could make a few of his own messages disappear. He was even condemned by his alma mater for these past emails, and has since issued an apology. You can make your own judgment.

What makes you the Snapchat expert? I’m guessing you’re a Millennial.

I’m hardly a Snapchat expert. That’s why I think this column might be helpful: These are some of the basic questions that a non-user might ask.

And really it doesn’t matter if you’re a Millennial or not. My bosses aren’t from that generation, and they’re way more adept at Snapchat than I am. (Kara, please stop Snapchatting me, it’s distracting.)

But, since you asked: I’m on the cusp of Millennialism, depending on which year you believe defines the start of it. I grew up on MTV, PCs and Instant Messenger; not so much YouTube, smartphones and Snapchat. If my AIM messages started vanishing back then, I probably would have unplugged the house phone, plugged it back in and tried dialing up again.

Also, I rarely feel entitled or optimistic. So there’s that.

Does that mean you think Snapchat is doomed?

Well, that’s entirely debatable. It could go the way of Facebook and WhatsApp, or it could go the way of Myspace. Remember Myspace?

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