Guide to Snapchat for Confused 30-Somethings

One of the benefits of paying $1,500 for a shared room in a San Francisco “startup house” is you get to live with a bunch of early 20-somethings and observe their obsession with Snapchat. It’s widely known that anyone above the age of 30 finds Snapchat baffling, not just for the concept it’s based on – disappearing messages – but because using the app itself is a mindboggling endeavor. But the more I learned how these tots are using Snapchat, the more I appreciated its appeal and how innovative it is, even iconoclastic for a social media platform. First off, Snapchat flies in the face of everything us 30-somethings have come to expect from a social media app.

There Are No Profiles: Facebook ushered in – or actually Friendster did if we want to get technical – the concept of a profile page. You’ve got your main profile image in the top left, your connections, recent posts, more photos and a little about you. On Snapchat, there are no profiles, at least not in this traditional sense. A “profile” in Snapchat world is your name, handle and an optional animated gif selfie that lurks in the background of a transparent Snapchat ghost. Beyond that, a Snapchat profile doesn’t tell you anything because unlike say, Facebook, Snapchat friends are your actual friends in the truest real life sense of the word, not someone you went to high school with 10 years ago and haven’t spoken to since.  In fact, you can’t even search for people on Snapchat by name unless they’re already in your address book or you know their screen name.

Swipe and Hold vs. Tap and Scroll: Snapchat does away with the tap and scroll, a legacy navigational system that takes its cues from computer mouses and scroll bars. Instead, you swipe and hold. Want to head over to another Snapchat screen? Just swipe to the left or right. And instead of the VCR-like pause and play functionality on Facebook videos, you just hold your finger on a Snapchat story to start, and release when you’re done.

So what’s A Snapchat Story? Stories are what transformed Snapchat from an ephemeral messaging app to something truly innovative. A Snapchat story is simply every photo and video you’ve taken in the past 24 hours - A Day in the Life of YOU. You can access Stories by swiping left on the Camera screen where you’ll find “My Story” and the stories from all of your friends represented by partially completed circles. The closer the circle is to completion, the closer it is to being up for 24 hours. During those 24 hours you can watch your friends’ stories as many times as you want, but once the 24 hours is up, they’re gone forever.

Time Is The Organizing Element: What makes stories so unique is they allow you to live vicariously through the eyes of your friends in a 24-hour period. Compare that to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which show postings from all your connections within a newsfeed. But the newsfeed is a fractured snapshot of each connection’s overall experience. It’s the difference between just reading news headlines vs. reading a first-person narrative. On Facebook you might see a photo of a friend on a wine tour in Napa Valley, but that photo is mixed in with an event invitation to a charity event, a news article, and dozens of updates form your other friends. Even if you wanted to see more about that friend’s trip to Napa and viewed her profile, you’re unlikely to see much else because a bunch of consecutive posts is bad Facebook etiquette and clogs up your friends’ feeds. What’s more, the trip could be old news and your friend just decided to finally upload them. On Snapchat, posting more photos and videos to your story isn’t intrusive because they’re all encapsulated within that little partially completed circle. And because every post happened within 24 hours, it provides an intimate real-time glimpse into that friend’s day. No story is ever stale.

Deleting Stuff Forever is Okay: While Instagram is your Greatest Hits Album, Snapchat is your life uncut and unfiltered. You wouldn’t want to save a snap or a story anymore than you’d want to DVR Anderson Cooper Live and watch it over again the following week. The “Best of” moments of that day have already been memorialized on Instagram as a single photo selected from dozens that were taken. When there’s a breaking news story on CNN, we hold on to each seemingly trivial update, but when the facts come out, there’s one truth that a 2-minute pre-recorded news segment can summarize. Snapchat is breaking news. Instagram is the final package.

The experience of watching a friend’s life in real-time Truman Story-style doesn’t just appeal to teenagers or 20-somethings. It has universal human appeal. It’s only a matter of time before our training wheels come off and we 30-somethings start snapping away, if you haven’t already. It’s also about that time, when you overhear a kid in a coffee shop say “My mom just added me on Snapchat,” that the next newfangled social app that has already started festering across a few college campuses will start spreading like wildfire.