Most of us can remember a time before Snapchat. The multimedia, ephemeral, difficult to define messaging app has delivered unbelievable growth, well and truly changing the world of social media in its short five years. Where traditional social media was principally concerned with keeping a log of a user’s life for posterity, Snapchat encouraged the opposite. Originally a selfie app that offered security through its lack of permanence, the young giant has forced traditional social heavyweights to reconsider their approaches.
It might seem ridiculous to refer to the likes of Facebook and even Instagram as ‘traditional’, but 13 years is a long time in the digital space. Most Millennials have grown up using Facebook for the majority, if not all, of their adult lives, while the younger generations are free from such a connection and are happy to chase new mediums of communication. For today’s teens, Facebook is the realm of their elders - their relatives are there, their employers are there, and the lack of privacy inherent in posting on Facebook is seemingly less appealing to young people. Your elderly relatives don’t need to see pictures of you on a night out, nor does your boss need to hear about your latest relationship troubles.
Last year, Mark Zuckerberg admitted that people were sharing less of themselves on social media, though he neglected to reveal quite how much less. He needn’t, though; you only have to look at quite how much Facebook now prompts users to share and ‘connect’ to get an idea of the scale of the problem. Personal status updates are essentially a thing of the past, and there is far more consideration involved in sharing anything now that many younger people have a huge list of connections.
When pasted onto this backdrop, Instagram’s move to be more like Snapchat is particularly interesting. Facebook - which owns Instagram - has a long history with the five year-old ephemeral messaging app, following a series of failed acquisitions and an embarrassing number of failed imitations. By leveraging Instagram, though, it may finally be able to see off a burgeoning giant (Instagram’s user base may be double that of Snapchat, but the latter has seen phenomenal growth). Despite being owned by Facebook and having been around for six years, Instagram remains ‘cool.’ It has been sensible in its diversification of its features and even its new Stories function has taken off.
But the growth of ephemeral content doesn’t necessarily suggest that users want a less public social media presence. It just means they want to interact with social media in a different, less permanent way. The beauty of the stories features is that, whether your entire friends list watches them or if only a handful of people see them, you get the same feedback. You can log your day, image by image, without having to worry about likes and comments or clogging up your own profile with second-rate images. There is something of a phenomenon of younger people deleting pictures from their Instagram feeds if they struggle to collect likes or if they are not of a high quality. The company responded by allowing users to ‘archive’ photos - hide them from public view but not delete them permanently - which is a fairly clear indication of its fear that user’s feeds could become barren.
Ultimately, users want a more curated online presence, a ‘best bits’ rather than a permanent log of every detail of their lives. Stories features struck a happy medium between the two, which goes some way to explaining why they’ve taken off seemingly out of nowhere. According to the Guardian, Instagram’s Stories has more users than the whole of Snapchat. It’s aping of Snapchat has been a success, in part, because of its young user base and the large crossover between the two apps. Facebook’s own stories feature has been less of a hit, and there’s a sense that such an established, universal social media is doomed to being unable to keep up with changing user expectations. If Facebook truly is the realm of the parents, it’s not inconceivable that in terms of actual engagement, the likes of Instagram and Snapchat could be set to surpass the longstanding giant.