Image as Language — 6 Ways Snapchat Shaped Communication
in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message
- Marshal McCluhan
Facebook released it’s quarterly results last week and Mark Zuckerberg gave his usual update on the earnings call. One paragraph from his remarks stood out. From Zuck:
“People feel more comfortable being themselves when they know their content will only be seen by a smaller group and when their content won’t stick around forever. Messaging and Stories make up the vast majority of growth in the sharing that we are seeing.”¹
As others have noted, Zuckerberg is describing Snapchat’s core features here. It seems clear that even though Snapchat is on the decline, it has had a profound impact on social media and the ways that we communicate.
Below I outlines 6 major ways that Snapchat has changed the way we all talk and share.
1 — Images
More than any other company, Snap normalized the use of images in direct communication. While photos and video have always been broadcast to large groups, they weren’t usually delivered to an individual the way that a text was. Snapchat changed that. The company realized that the medium of smartphone photos was itself the message.
Leaning into camera-first communication, Snap evolved both the consumption and production of media/messages. Vertical video became the norm. Audio on video clips became optional. For Snapchat users, sending a photo became as common as sending text. The rich texture of an emotion could be conveyed in a selfie instead of in words.
As a result of these changes, every decent smartphone these days has a high-pixel-count front-facing camera. Some even have two. Any friction, societal or otherwise, between the act of taking a photo and that of sending it has been eliminated.
2 — Ephemera
Snapchat’s other big insight was that we don’t want our stuff to stick around on the internet forever. The Snapchat app brought the ephemeral nature of communication back to the digital age.
By ensuring that messages disappear immediately after they are read, Snapchat felt intimate in a way that other social networks didn’t. So intimate in fact that the app was at first thought to be mostly for sending raunchy photos.
For Snapchat, not saving things became a feature instead of bug. Once embedded into communication, it became part of our language and culture. According to wikipedia, the use of the term “ghosting” with regards to relationships began in 2011. This is the same year that Snap was founded. The below graph shows Google trends for the word ‘ghosting’ since 2004. It has more than quadrupled since Snap Inc. started.
Now with Facebook (and likely many more companies) adding ephemeral ‘stories’ to their products, it seems like disappearing media is here to stay.
3 — Snapstreaks 🔥 🔥 🔥
Snapchat didn’t invent the concept of gamification, but it did bring it to the realm of person-to-person chat. With the advent of Snapstreaks and Snap scores, communication became an end instead of a means. The incentives to interact now included an increased score and a series of flame emojis splashed across a screen.
We shouldn’t underestimate just how effective these subtle rewards are. They have been shown to increase engagement and have even been called addicting by mental health experts.
Like ‘ghosting’ , the proliferation of the Snapstreak flame emoji made it’s way into actual language. People started calling things ‘lit’ to describe how great they were. Eg. Pete Davidson on his (since cancelled) engagement to Ariana Grande: “I feel like I won a contest. It’s f**king lit, Jimmy. It’s so lit.”
Below is google trends data on the terms ‘lit’ and ‘it’s lit’.
More recent, people have even stopped typing the 🔥 emoji and now literally say something is “fire” in speech. More than any other medium, Snapchat has brought emoji to actual language.
4 — Lenses and Filters
The idea of seeing the world through a filter is nothing new. Edith Piaf sang about seeing life as if through rose-tinted glasses in 1945. Snapchat took this idea to the next level. Photos and videos became not just messages, but canvases that could be painted on.
While Instagram is equally responsible for bringing photo editing to the masses, Snapchat changed what a photo could be. With the introduction of filters and stickers, Snapchat made it possible to add contextual information to a photo. The meme became personal. You could now add a geo-filter to show where a photo was taken. You could add simple text like “Monday Mood” above a grimacing selfie to share not just what you were feeling, but why.
With lenses, images no longer had to represent a base reality. A user could wear an Iron Man mask or grow puppy ears. They could change their hair or eye color. They could puke a sparkling rainbow. Snapchat filters married the self-absorption of the selfie with the limitless possibilities of graphical computing.
5 — Avatars
With lenses and filters, Snapchat helped us to internalize the idea that images don’t have to strictly represent reality. And yet unlike the days of web 1.0 where people could take on any identity, Snapchat pictures are still based on our real selves. As much as we may want to be something else, like Narcissus, we can’t help but stare at our own faces.
The apotheosis of this is Bitmoji, Snapchat’s version of the online avatar. While Bitmoji still exists as a separate app, it has flourished since it was acquired by Snap in 2016. Bitmoji allows anyone to create a cartoon avatar based on their actual self. It is at once a combination of the real and the imagined. For example, here’s my current Bitmoji.
Like a lot of people who are getting older, I like the ability to see myself in the online world without having to take a (probably unflattering) photo.
The idea that we all want to see and communicate ourselves, but not our exact selves is so popular that all the major platforms are adopting it. Apple has ‘Memoji’, Facebook has ‘Avatars’, Samsung has mildly terrifying AR Emojis. For my money though, no one has done it as well as Snap.
6 — Augmenting Reality
The differences between Snap and Facebook when it comes to avatars is telling. Facebook invests in virtual reality, a realm where we can literally be anything Snap on the other hand is focussed on enhancing the lived experience. It’s ambitions are more limited in scope, but also more natural. Filters and Lenses showed us that we could add new layers to what we see and share. Snapchat Spectacles attempted to bring us closer to doing this all the time. Sure the product was a massive failure, but Spectacles had elements of greatness.
For one thing, the product proved that affordable, always-on cameras could be built into eyewear. The camera would not only be the center of communication, but also perception. Spectacles also showed a viable path to market for this technology. Where other attempts like Google Glass were too nerdy and weird, Spectacles represented a vision of augmented reality that was naturally integrated into everyday life. The fact that Tencent is making a clone of this product for the China market shows that it’s design had some inspired ideas.
Ultimately, a company with better hardware chops (probably Apple) will enter the marked for AR glasses and dominate it. When they do, you can be sure they will be cribbing from Snap’s playbook.
SNAP stock may be hitting all-time lows, it’s use among teens may have been surpassed by Instagram, and Evan Spiegel may be forced to furiously type company-redefining memos into the middle of the night. Nevertheless, Snapchat has made a lasting mark on our culture and our language. It has shaped the way we all communicate, even if we never used the Snapchat app itself.
Ultimately Snapchat reminded us that the medium of our communication is the message. It put photos first. It’s right there in the name — Snapchat. Take a picture and talk to somebody.