The Surprising Neuroscience Behind Snapchat’s Success

With the recent hype around Snapchat’s IPO, the app has been the center of speculation of not just Wall Street but every major publication. Discussions about its future and potential share prices are at a peak, so I figured this is as good of a time as any to give my 2 cents..

The Lack of Likes

Many attribute Snapchat’s success to the ephemeral communication model which it pioneered. Initially, private snaps deleted upon viewing but what launched the company into mega-popularity was the Stories feature: the ability to publically post snaps for 24 hours before disappearing. This completely counter-intuitive novelty at the time wasn’t just a differentiator but a game changer, as validated by Facebook’s shameless implementation in it’s own products: Instagram, WhatsApp and current beta tests in the actual Facebook app. But a key characteristic that most overlook as to what makes Stories so effective is not it’s transient nature, it’s the lack of a “like” button.

No Social Pressure

The inability to “like” a Story means there’s absolutely no public display of social validation. You don’t know if a story is liked by a 100 people or just 2, since only the creator knows how many people have seen it. Getting few likes from your peers on a post can be an embarrassing form of rejection and neuroscience research tells us that our brains experience social rejection similarly to actual physical pain, as they both stimulate our second somatosensory cortex. The fear of too few likes makes people reluctant to share content if they don’t think it will be well received. We’ve all witnessed somebody post a picture, receive too little likes and go back to delete it a few hours later precisely for that reason.

The Comfort of Stories

The brilliance of Stories is that they eliminate the fear of public embarrassment while still serving us the dopamine neurotransmitter that makes us feel good when we do see that people are viewing our content. This in turn makes us more comfortable sharing more content, more often. But as our sharing increases, the quality usually decreases, which leads us to the next counter-intuitive reason behind the success of Stories: variable rewards.

The Content Paradox

You don’t know what to expect when you open a story, it could be funny and entertaining or dumb and pointless. One would assume that this wide range of content quality would be a negative thing, but contrary to intuition it’s precisely this uncertainty that makes Stories not only compelling but even addicting. The psychologists B.F. Skinner demonstrated this in the 1930's with his experiments on operant conditioning by placing a rat inside of cage with a lever which would consistently dispense food when pressed. He then placed another rat in an identical cage but the lever would only sometimes dispense food.

To his surprise he found that the rat with the consistently dispensing lever was not very interested, while the rat with the unpredictable lever would compulsively press it, eager to find out when he would be rewarded next. If you want proof that we react similarly when it comes to unpredictable outcomes, look no further than slot machines. Likewise, the uncertainty behind our friends’ stories keeps us constantly checking them, wondering what we’ll see next.

Going Left

Going forward means going left when everybody’s headed right. I don’t think Snapchat created stories with the intention of deliberately exploiting our psychological impulses. I think it was conceived out of exploration; by asking the “what if’s” and entertaining the counter intuitive.Consider the following interesting examples of communication models that fly in the face of convention:

  • The app Yo! challenges the notion that messaging should be customizable by only letting friends send each other the phrase “Yo” and nothing else (at the time). While it may sound dumb, tens of thousands of users have found creative uses for it and it has gone to raise over $2 million dollars in venture capital.
  • The app Buzz challenges the notion that contacts should be permanent by deleting any personal connection you don’t talk to in 72 hours.
  • Firechat only lets users talk to each other if they are in close proximity and without needing an Internet connection.

While no one knows what the next breakthrough communication app will be, it’ll most certainly challenge pre-existing notions of how a social network should act instead of blindly copying conventions.

Now kindly “like” this story by pressing the 💚 :)