The Communication Ephemerality Creates

I was wrong about Snapchat. When I first saw it, maybe a year, year and a half ago, back when it was still called Picaboo, I stared at it blankly. What could you possibly want to convey in a photo you wouldn't want to keep? What would people use this to communicate to each other? Apparently, I was wrong. There is quite a bit of communication that is happening over this platform.

I'm not a big believer in hand-wavey communication hypotheses, though. It isn't enough to say, "They'll use it to, y'know, tell each other about stuff!" This is a lazy way of saying, I don't really want to think about it. communication is a deep word, but assuming that swimming somewhere in that sea of human need is a use case that fits a technology is lazy and dangerous.

Dustin Curtis wrote a piece that a friend brought to my attention, called Photography's Third Act. He's right that the ephemerality of Snapchat is a Huge component of it's success, but he's wrong about why. Here's where he gets to the crux of the issue:

Instead of taking photos to maintain memories, we used them for instantaneous communication. And the resolution of information in a photo, it turns out, is huge when compared to text or even to voice. A photo can tell you where someone is, what time it is, who they are with, and much more. When you focus heavily on artistry, which Instagram does, it becomes much harder to take photos that truly represent the moment you’re sharing.

Emphasis my own, but this is where Dustin trips up on a fundamental belief that many in the valley have: Communication must include information. That's just not true. In fact, I'd argue that most communication includes no information at all. This is exactly what tripped me up as well. I was thinking of Snapchat as a Communication: Information app. Once I'd made that classification in my mind, I struggled with what exact, valuable information people would like to communicate with this tool. What information would we actually want to be ephemeral?

Last night our dinner conversation drifted to Poke. My sister, who was in the same year as the founders at Stanford, commented, "Regardless, it sucks for my friends." "Wait, why?" "The guys who started it..."

At which point, a girl sitting at the table next to us, she looked maybe fourteen, turned around and nearly died: "YOU'RE FRIENDS WITH THE SNAPCHAT GUYS!?! OMG. THAT IS SO COOL. SNAPCHAT IS SO COOL. OMG."

Then I casually spilled soy sauce into my lap over my excitement (thankfully, I pretty much wear nothing but black): OMG. A REAL SNAPCHAT USER. IN THEIR NATIVE ENVIRONMENT. OMG.

So I told her, honestly, that I didn't get it. And I asked her what, exactly, she sent pictures of. Her answer: "Well, you know, basically anything. Funny faces. Where I am. We just write 'Hi' on whatever and send it. I'll send a photo of my brother eating noodles [she shows us]."

So, here's the thing. Even at fourteen, sending a text going, "Oh, hey, I'm at dinner with my family eating noodles!" would be greeted with, "OK, idgaf, how is that applicable to me?" There is absolutely no relevant information being conveyed, and in a photo with a funny face, probably even less. This is not a communication about the dinner. What is going on, is a simple and easy way to say hello.

The ephemerality, the triviality, of this platform is exactly what makes it perfect. Most of us don't live the interesting, fascinating lives our Facebook or Instagram would have you believe. Most of us don't really have anything interesting to say. But we all want to feel connected. We're floating through the world and we want to stay grounded to those things that connect us, even when we have no particular reason to do so. This is where Snapchat comes in. It doesn't matter that you have nothing to say: the lightness that ephemerality imposes gives us permission not to say anything meaningful at all. It's the equivalent of the text message I got this morning that contained nothing but, "Good morning sunshine." Yes, I know it's morning, captain obvious. The part that made me blush was the really simple fact that someone was thinking of me. This is communication without information: the simple fact that we want to stay connected. The simple fact that I am thinking of you.

Here's the part that gets funny: there's actually a class of apps that predate Snapchat in filling this need. And, it's predominantly filled by our good friends at Zynga. I remember talking to 25-35 year old women a few years ago in user studies, at the height of FarmVille's popularity, and what I overwhelmingly heard was tales of women who were bored at work or home, and just wanting interaction with their friends. When you have nothing to say, sending a virtual cow isn't a bad way to express a sentiment. This was replaced over time with newer ways to interact, arguably better: Draw Something, Words with Friends, etc. Very few people care about Scrabble. Most just want to do something entertaining with a friend, to maintain that connection. A younger sibling whose older sister won't call, but will respond by playing a turn.

I think the presence of ephemerality here is fascinating, because of what it allows. Snapchat has struggled with the truth of the Internet, the truth that no matter how we try, information wants to be free. If I want to share that photo, I will. But. That may not matter. It may just be what those moments of freedom, those moments of knowing what I do isn't worthy of some almighty scribe of my actions and interactions, are all a user needs.

It's a great little truth. We can expect to see much more of it, if history tells us anything. But a focus on privacy might be a red herring. This is an app for connections, and there are many opportunities for Facebook, Zynga, and others to create new little ways to tell a friend, I'm thinking of you. There are even more ways to help people feel a bit more connected to the rest of humanity, a little bit less alone. This isn't about Snapchat or any truth of Communication: Information that they've uncovered, this is a tool that happened to resonate with some users. It won't be the first or the last.