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Snapchat in a Nutshell: Visual Storytelling in the Moment

This post is part of a series called The New Photo Essay.
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Snapchat is a popular mobile messaging app developed in 2011 by three Stanford University students. At its most basic, it’s a messaging app where you send photo or video Snaps to other users. Each Snap is a single image or short video with a time limit. The recipient can only view the Snap for between one and ten seconds before it is gone for good. You can add additional content like captions, emoji, location-specific badges, event-specific badges or visual effects to each Snap. Most snaps include, at the very least, a caption.

In addition to Snaps, Snapchat can send basic text messages that disappear after they’ve been read.

Snapchat also has a My Story feature, where individual Snaps are posted publicly and can be seen by all your friends for 24 hours. This feature has some unique creative potential for photo and video makers.

The Appeal of the Ephemeral Message

Anything posted to the Internet is usually backed up, mirrored and catalogued. It’s almost impossible to clean your digital footprints. Into this steps Snapchat who promise to not just make it possible to delete messages, but to make it impossible to save them. In a culture of abundance, the ephemeral has appeal.

Snapchat UI
A Snapchat sent by the author, the Snapchat UI, and some of the author's friend's Stories.

Although Snapchat has been dismissed in the past as just an app for teenagers to sext, that’s not the case. Yes, it makes it safer for people to send explicit images knowing that they won’t be saved (at least not by default and only then with a bit of a hassle), but there are plenty of other reasons not to keep messages. Many conversations are important in the moment but lose any relevance later on.

Imagine organising to go to a movie with friends: all that matters is that you reach a decision about what to see and when to see it. The thread of messages that led to the decision are unimportant. With regular messaging apps, they’re saved and just add to digital clutter. With Snapchat, they are gone. For people who’ve grown up in an age where everything is stored, this is freeing.

Snapchat, Presence and Visual Communication

Snapchat messages feel more present than other forms of digital communication. Sending a Snap to someone is inviting them to share an experience, a visual experience, for a single instant. It creates a "we moment": the recipient of a Snap gets a brief glimpse into what you were doing for a single moment and then it’s gone forever.

Snapchat is way of communicating that a saved image or text message can’t match for intimacy. This is not looking back on a friend’s holiday pictures after the fact, it’s vicariously living the holiday while they’re there. It's a tiny shared visual experience between people, people who might be halfway across the world. This can induce a kind of postmodern vertigo, but then it's also pretty damn cool.

In a culture of abundance, the ephemeral has appeal.

Snapchat messages, due to their impermanence, lack the same sense of careful curation and self-indulgent identity creation that defines Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. No one you don’t want to see your Snaps is likely to see them. It's a lot more loose, and fun. Snaps won’t turn up in a job interview ten years down the line. As a way of sharing your life and passions with your friends, more permanent services cannot compete.

Stories and the Art of Visual Storytelling

The My Story feature is an interesting twist on the basic Snapchat premise. While each Snap is still limited to under ten seconds, Stories are publicly viewable for 24 hours from when they’re posted. This makes them slightly more permanent, but still extremely temporary when compared to more traditional social networks.

Some people use the My Story to create narratives. For example, at its simplest, a Story can be five or ten Snaps from a night out that when viewed together tell the tale of the whole night. On the other hand, significantly more Snaps can be linked together with thought and intention to tell longer and deeper stories. Snapchat users such as Jérôme Jarre are pioneering this approach.


However you use it, snapchat is a great place to experiment with visual storytelling. It appeals to photographers and filmmakers in a way that other apps can’t. 

The ephemerality of the Snaps provides a stark contrast to how most digital communications operate. Paradoxically, the temporary nature of Snaps makes for a uniquely present type of visual communication.

Snapchat is also a fundamentally image-oriented storytelling service. In a lot of ways, My Story is a like making a tiny film: a selection of shots and cuts put into a sequence to create a narrative. The story you tell can be as straight-forward, non-linear, personal, intimate, funky or strange as you want.

And that's Snapchat in a nutshell: tell a little visual story, and then it's gone.

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