Note to the reader: If you’re confused by the terms snap, story, or filters, you might want to take a couple of minutes to learn a few definitions here.
A couple of weeks ago I read a BuzzFeed article that made me feel old. Since I’m pretty much the most intensive Snapchat user I know (ask my friends or co-workers, they’ll confirm that my love for the app sometimes borders on obsession), I was unprepared for what I discovered.
The American teen in question is an extreme user:
As a point of comparison, I’ve been active on the platform for more than 2 years, I send about 15 snaps a day, my story is seen by 50 people, and my score is a fraction of the American teens in the article.
Are the teens in the article representative of all U.S. teens? It’s impossible to say after reading just this single blog post, and usage probably varies depending on a multitude of factors. My curiosity though, was well and truly piqued and I wanted to go through the exercise of interviewing teens in Quebec.
My first subject starts off strong. When I ask which social media platforms she uses on a daily basis, the first two apps she talks to me about (musical.ly et WattPad) are ones I’ve never heard of. After doing some research, I realize that Wattpad, a literary social network where users can create and exchange stories, has nearly 40 million users. An article from author Elizabeth Spann Craig explains that Wattpad is the only platform where the majority of readers are between 13 and 18 years old.
Does Mia follow any YouTube accounts? She does – so many, in fact, that when asked which she follows, she needs to get out her computer to choose a few. Beyond these few platforms, she maintains an Instagram account (though not regularly) and Facebook, which she admits is her least favourite, calling the platform an “application for old people” with way too many ads.
In light of her first answers, I jump to the crux of the matter, and ask her what it is about an application like Snapchat that interests her. “The fact that you get to choose who to send your content to, and that it’s private, unlike other social media where your handle is easy to find, and you leave a trail everywhere you go.”
Snapchat also allows her to stay in touch with friends she talks to on other platforms – like the girl she knows from chatting and exchanging stories on Wattpad, and who is now a friend on Snapchat, too.
Performance indicators like score, number of views, and friends are completely unimportant to her. The platform serves as a fun way to communicate with friends, and the idea of performance is completely absent from the conversation.
At the end of my phone interview with her, I ask if I can write to her on Facebook if I have any other questions. “Write to me on Snapchat instead!”
Alyssandre is in grade 7, and a member of the cheerleading team at school. I spoke to her a few hours before a competition. The apps she uses every day are Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, and she uses them from an iPod, since she doesn’t have a cell phone yet. She is also a YouTube subscriber, mainly to the accounts of YouTubers from Quebec.
Why is Facebook her top choice? “It’s the social network I joined first, and it’s where most of my friends are. My friends and I also use Facebook chat to communicate, so for me it’s the most compete platform, the one that gives me everything I need.”
And the ads? She sees them, but they don’t bother her, and she never clicks on them.
I ask her to specify what she thinks I mean when I talk about Facebook ads. “The things that appear to the right of the news feed.”
The thing that interests Alyssandre about the platform is its creative potential. “Since the update, I love the animations and special effects filters!”
Once again, the question of performance doesn’t factor in for her. She uses the app exclusively to communicate with friends. She is careful to mention that all her networks are private and secure.
When I ask her if Snapchat provides an escape from networks like Facebook that are now overrun with parents, her answer makes me realise that Snapchat might cast a wider net than I’d thought. “Nope, my parents have it, too!”
Daphnée uses Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. When I ask her why Facebook is one of her preferences, she answers that she uses it to communicate with friends, to see where they are, and to find out what’s going on in their lives. I get the same impression from her as I did from the other teens: Facebook is still the default platform for online social interaction. She also follows several Quebec and international celebrities. As for YouTube, she uses the platform exclusively to listen to music.
Daphnée has been on the platform for two or three years, and a hundred people look at what she publishes on her story. This is the highest number I encounter in my interviews. Her score isn’t important to her, and everyone who has access to her profile is a friend or acquaintance. Her favourite part of the platform? The animated filters and effects.
In spite of the hundred people watching her story every day, there are only about a dozen friends she Snapchats with on a daily basis.
In speaking to a young adult, I notice a big difference in how she perceives and uses social media. Thuy-Lien has a very clear awareness of her own usage. On a daily basis, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and sometimes Tumblr are among her social networks of choice. She admits that she prefers Instagram, for the attractive visuals and aesthetics on the platform. When she creates her own content, she’s careful to choose and publish images that respect her personal editorial guidelines.
She uses social media to consume content like the Korean programs she finds on YouTube, but also to inform herself as a consumer. She admits to having discovered and bought products based on recommendations from friends online, or by browsing from one image or page to another.
To her, Facebook and Instagram ads are very much visible. What she doesn’t like, is when the ads she sees are outside her interests.
What draws her to the platform? “The fact that content disappears, it changes quickly, and you don’t need to think long term. And there’s no editing. It forces you to deliver the message quickly and get right to the point. It’s like a faster version of YouTube!”
It’s reminiscent of the words of Carlos Gil, a social media marketing expert who tackled the issue in a recent podcast episode dedicated to the platform. He describes Snapchat as a mix of Twitter, for its concise and instantaneous nature, and YouTube, for the video anchored in daily life.
Performance level and score are not very important to her, although she thinks it’s a fun aspect of the application. Like most of the people we spoke to, she only communicates with people she knows. “I don’t add just anyone.”
Thuy Lien occasionally consumes content from media partners through Discover, but it’s not necessarily a habit. Her favourite? Food Channel and BuzzFeed!
Once again, the triad of Facebook-Instagram-Snapchat wins out. The reason? Between these three social networks (as long as it’s filtered, she specifies), she’s able to stay on top of news that interests her, and communicate with her friends. At the same time, she subscribes to multiple YouTube channels to listen to music and watch documentaries. Sometimes she uses social media to get information on products that interest her, but she always goes to the store when the time comes to buy.
When I ask her about the new Instagram ads, her response was enthusiastic, “I notice them but they don’t bother me at all! They are discreet and well done.” Her answer echoes the high standards imposed by the platform before launching its ad formats, in the interest of offering an optimal user experience.
Her interest stems from the information she finds there. “I like the stories. Looking at my friends’ stories is like watching a little montage of their lives. Some of my friends have funny stories, while others use the text and drawing functionalities to create more artistic stories.” Snapchat also allows her to stay in touch with friends she would otherwise have lost touch with, and members of her family who live in France.
Because she communicates only with people she already knows, she considers herself a moderate user, but admits that some of her friends use it more widely. Her 14-year-old cousin, for example, claims to go so far as to make new friends on the platform.
She regularly checks out content from media partners through Discover and Live. She especially loves it when they share behind the scenes content from Fashion Weeks all over the world. “It’s as though I was there!” Another of Snapchat’s media partners that she often looks at is Vice, which she says really speaks to her generation.
Although in the end, I witnessed behaviour far more nuanced than what was described in the article that motivated my research, the experience was still elucidating. My biggest take-away was that, among the people I interviewed, the potential for creative communication, and the new way of consuming information stood out as the platform’s most interesting elements. The animated filters (that are reinventing the selfie) and geofilters were mentioned on several occasions as being of particular interest. And it’s a good thing – Snapchat just launched a feature allowing the community to submit their own geofilters, at a far more reasonable rate than their current advertising costs.
Another interesting thing is that, since the platform doesn’t include performance indicators like “likes,” comments, or share, users feel less pressure to please when they’re sharing content. Which might explain the explosion in popularity we’re seeing from one day to the next.