We all understand the existential threats posed by social media: how its ubiquity is shortening our attention spans, making us anxious and depressed, eroding monogamy and family values, forcing us to see how much fun stupid Karen is having at her stupid parties — the list goes on. Snapchat, however, stands apart. Unlike Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, Snapchat foregrounds something we have always known about human selfhood: its nonexistence.
For most smartphone users, Snapchat is integral to the smartphone experience. It occupies a distinct space from the other principal photo-sharing app, Instagram, both because Snapchat content is deleted after viewing and because it can be selectively shared. Because ’Grams live forever, it is expected that they are aesthetically pleasing. The structure of the app reinforces this: The cornerstone of Instagram is the filter, designed to make photos as beautiful as possible. With Instagram, everyone is an artist: Snap a pic of a cloud, throw a filter on it (not Kelvin, obviously, because that looks #ridiculous) and pray that you cross the popularity threshold, past which Instagram lists your likes as a number rather than as a series of names.
Snaps, by contrast, are all about the content of the photos themselves. They are not saved, so aesthetics are unimportant. The main embellishments on Snapchat are captions; while there are filters, they are so meager and pathetic compared to Instagram’s wealth of photo-editing power as to be saddening. Snaps are often humorous, conveying your quirky, idiosyncratic life, which means that there’s a lot of “look at how much we’re drinking and how crazy we are” content (college, amirite?). As such, there’s very little overlap: A Snap is rarely a ’Gram, and vice versa.
The crucial difference between Snapchat and Instagram (as well as Facebook), however, is in the way photos are shared. On Instagram and Facebook, you share content with all of your Friends. On Snapchat, you select to whom you’re sending each picture. This grants you the freedom to take and share pictures that not everyone in your network would appreciate.
For example, when I came across a lone cupcake sitting on the sidewalk of Elm Street last Wednesday, my first instinct, obviously, was to Snap it (caption: “sum1’s ready 2 party 2nite”). I then had to make a decision: Who of my 49 Snapchat friends (50 if you include Team Snapchat) should receive it? The Snap represented a distinct sense of humor that my friend Thomas (username: givememilkPLZ) certainly appreciates, but perhaps not Annie (username: thisisnottherealannie), to whom I show a goofier sensibility. Instead, I sent her a Snap of a bottle of Dubra (caption: new bestie [two men holding hands emoji]), which I would not send to Thomas, who doesn’t drink. As in life, I never reveal my whole self in Snapchats.
In this way, Snapchat is customized exactly to my tastes. People only send me things that they think I would appreciate. Snapchat allows me to present a different version of myself to everyone I know. Sending Snaps is an act of self-creation: When I scroll through my list of Snapchat friends trying to decide who would appreciate a picture of a coffee cup I have drawn a face on, I am deciding which version of me — what sense of humor, what values, what worldview — I want to share. What consistently shocks me is how stark these variations are. While everyone knows that we act differently with our family, with authority figures and with our friends, we generally consider how we act with our friends to be our “true selves.” Our choice of Snapchat recipients shows that even among our closest friends, we make distinctions, constantly presenting alternate selves, tailoring ourselves to others’ expectations. Selfhood is illusory: I show a different “real me” with each Snap.
Snapchat is therefore the best imitator of real life that we have. None of the “one-personality-fits-all” nonsense of Instagram and Facebook, where you are pressured with presenting one coherent self/brand to the world: On those platforms, what your best friend sees is also what cute Josh from physics sees, which is also what your uncle sees. In real life, I do not present the same person to everyone, or anyone — I make minute alterations in what I say, how I say it, and my accompanying physicality. The types of Snaps I send and to whom I send them, show far more than my Instagram feed ever could. Who are we, then, but amalgamations of Snaps, each revealing one of many shifting components that make up our identities?