The evolution of Snapchat: from nudes to news with a dash of comedy


Author: Sydney Hemmendinger

Snapchat is a hallmark of millennial culture. What simply began as an ephemeral way to send nude photographs, with the comfort of knowing they could not be saved (or used for blackmail), has developed into the second most popular form of communication for millennials.

Evan Spiegel developed the idea for the app as a project for his product design class at Stanford University. Despite his classmates’ dismissal of the idea, Spiegel successfully launched the app, then called “Picaboo,” in July of 2011. It quickly began to gain traction from there on; less than a year after the launch, 25 pictures were sent through the newly renamed Snapchat every second. Today, Snapchat is one of the top 10 most downloaded apps in over 100 countries.


Snapchat is one of the first apps to capitalize on our generation’s shortening attention spans. In May of 2015, a Microsoft study concluded that today’s humans had a shorter attention span than goldfish — nine seconds, to be exact. While the researchers estimated that the average human attention spanned a mere eight seconds, the longest an individual Snapchat can be (10 seconds) is about as long. Snapchatters are not required to spend too much time focusing — and the app’s success indicates users don’t want to. Snapchat forces users to keep their captions, display times and videos short, streamlining conversations into abbreviated thoughts.

The minimalist nature of Snapchat challenges users to be clever if they want to exert any emotional response from their recipients. One way the app facilitates this is through frequent updates, such as the ability to apply “Geofilters” specifying the weather or location where the snap was sent. These filters allow the Snapchatter to send a great deal of information without much effort and without many words. Generally, users do not celebrate apps’ attempts to diversify their products, such as Facebook’s addition of the Timeline or Instagram’s new algorithm — however, when Snapchat first unveiled the wide array of new filters and lenses in 2015, people rushed to update their app.

With the goal of becoming increasingly integrated into the lives of its users, Snapchat has become one of the most lucrative and in-demand apps on the market.

“We think we can build really cool stuff people want to pay for,” Spiegel said in a 2013 interview with TechCrunch. “The app is now a part of everyone’s day-to-day lives. That means that they will — I at least would — pay for a more unique experience.”

Many companies, allured by the Snapchat’s profitability, have attempted to purchase the app, but to no avail. In 2013, business publications and even members of Snapchat’s board ridiculed Spiegel for turning down Facebook’s offer to buy the company for a reported $3 billion. Just as Spiegel proved his classmates wrong in 2011, he surprised media and board members as well. Today, Snapchat is valued at over $19 billion.

Snapchat’s price tag has continued to rise, aided in part by the addition of the Discover feature in January of last year. Discover is Snapchat’s news and lifestyle channel. A select number of outlets, varying from CNN to the Food Network, pay for their own portals on Snapchat; many even film content vertically specifically for Snapchat’s platform. With the tap of a finger, a user can be quickly updated on all of the day’s breaking news stories in only a few minutes. These news slots are limited, however — Snapchat only offers 20 Discover channels for networks to buy. Advertisements that float through the Discover channels cost companies about $750,000, and they are competitive to acquire.

Discover channels are one of Snapchat’s newer features; however, it is not the only way that users can learn about current events. When a Snapchat update added the “My Story” feature in 2013, the app shifted gears from being primarily a means of communication between two users to a method of updating multiple followers simultaneously. The update allowed users to broadcast snippets of their lives to all of their friends, or followers. Many users took advantage of this, utilizing the Snap Story feature to entertain or update their friends en masse. Chloe Lassman (sophomore) is well known among the class of 2018 for her creative Snaps (pictured, top).

Lassman said that the Snap Story update was the biggest influence on her Snapchat activity. She has a variety of themes that frequently reappear in her Snap Stories.

“Fifteen minutes into _____ and chill” is a popular theme of hers, playing off of an internet meme that began as “15 minutes into Netflix and Chill and she/he gives you this look.” Despite the fact that Snapchat is her most used app, and the first one she opens when she unlocks her phone, she is hesitant about calling Snapchat a hobby of hers.

“It seems so millennial and insignificant, none of it matters,” Lassman said.It’s like 10 seconds of a stupid picture or video but I enjoy it, I like to get creative with it.”

She appreciates a variety of stories, both similar and different from her own. Some of her favorite Snapchat stories to watch are Georgia Tucker’s (sophomore) because of her frequent landscape and, as Lassman put it, aesthetic shots.

Shannon O’Hara ’15 is also a Snapchat aficionado. Her Snap Stories (pictured, middle), like Lassman’s, go the comedic route, but she is careful to make sure everything is pleasing to the eye.

“I like to be funny but also maintain some sort of aesthetic: nothing blurry or out of focus, nothing that isn’t aesthetically pleasing,” O’Hara said.

Her dogs tend to be the stars of her Stories. She knows her audience, and they all love a good dog post, especially when the captions are political. She describes her Snapchat style as “comedic social commentary,” so she wants her Stories to be relevant.

“For the election, during the debates, I would take pictures of my dogs and quote one the candidates’ responses to the questions,” she said.

Despite wanting to have simultaneously funny and topical snaps, O’Hara said that she Snapchats more for herself than anyone else. Snapchat is not the way she prefers to talk to people. In fact, she very seldom sends personalized snaps. Most of the time if she’s taking a picture or filming a video, it’s for her Story.

“I’ll forget having posted all the time,” O’Hara said. “I almost post for myself. I don’t know if I do it for anyone else.”

While O’Hara doesn’t communicate via Snapchat, she does use it for news purposes.

“I love the Discover feature. I was pitching to News Station in 2013 that they should get a Snapchat. It’s such a quick and awesome way to get information,” O’Hara said.

And O’Hara isn’t the only member of the Occidental community with Snapchat skills. Austin Wang ’15 was well known on campus for his creative Snapchat art. The app allows users to draw onto whatever photo or video they’ve taken. Most people used this feature to complete a sentence when they ran out of space while writing a caption, but Wang created masterpieces. From drawing Hogwarts to a shark infested ocean, Wang’s imagination made for an ingenious use of Snapchat.

As for famous Snapchatters, Lassman admits to watching DJ Khaled’s Snap Stories periodically.

“DJ Khaled is a philosopher, but his stories are too long,” Lassman said.

DJ Khaled is one of many celebrities who has thrived professionally because of his use of Snapchat. Today, Khaled has the most followers on Snapchat and does not fail to keep them updated on his stream of consciousness and professional activities. He is not the only celebrity to use Snapchat for publicity — Kylie Jenner has a large Snapchat following and posts on the app daily to update her many followers, even if it is just a video of her pouting for a few seconds.

Some members of the medical field have also latched onto Snapchat. By following “Dr. Miami,” or Dr. Michael Salzhauer, Snapchat users are granted access to daily footage of his procedures. About one-third of his patients agree to sign the hefty consent form allowing him to post their surgeries to his Snap Story. His following is still increasing, but his type of Snap Story does not appeal to everyone — O’Hara, for example, lauded the doctor for his publicity expertise but does not see herself becoming a Dr. Miami viewer.

“That’s brilliant marketing, but I don’t think I’m going to follow him. I [work] in Beverly Hills and I have too much exposure to plastic surgery,” O’Hara said.

Salzhauer says that Snapchat has grown his patient list considerably — he estimates that about 60 percent of his patients hear about him through social media. As with DJ Khaled and Jenner, Snapchat has provided Dr. Miami with a public platform that has expanded his popularity.

Despite Snapchat’s evolution into a platform for entertainment, the app began and, for most, remains a more cavalier form of communication than texting or calling. Rhiannon Johnson (junior) said that Snapchat provided the ideal means for a more intimate relationship to develop between her and her current boyfriend Nolan Watson (junior)*.

“We weren’t officially dating yet, so I didn’t really feel like I was allowed to be texting him all the time, but Snapchat is so casual that I felt like it was okay for me to Snapchat him a lot,” Johnson said.

The two began what is called a “Snapstreak,” an exchange of at least one Snapchat per day between two people. Snapstreaks are represented by the fire emoji and the number of days the streak has been shared, both of which are displayed with the partner’s name. The streak that Johnson and Watson began incentivized them to continue Snapping, eventually helping their relationship form.

Johnson described her relationship as being “unofficial” for so long that she and Watson weren’t sure which date would be their anniversary. They decided that a one year Snapstreak would be the perfect anniversary date.

Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, Johnson and Watson never made it to the big 365 (on Snapchat, that is). Watson’s phone hadn’t worked with Snapchat for a while so he logged into the app on Johnson’s for the sake of maintaining the streak. Regrettably, the two could not see each other on day 260, which Johnson dubbed “the worst day ever,” because it marked the end of their nearly year-long streak.

Johnson and Watson would most likely still be dating even without Snapchat, but their relationship could have taken longer to form, according to Johnson. The “more casual,” as Johnson put it, form of communication allows couples, or future couples, to maintain contact without the anxiety of pestering one another. Johnson and Watson went through great lengths to maintain their streak, as do many other users. In fact, Snapchat’s newest update added an hourglass feature that alerts users as to how much time they have left until their streak disappears. The new update, like many others, was met with enthusiasm.

Snapchat is a multifaceted app that has successfully sold (both figuratively and literally) its updates to users over the years. As the attention spans of young adults wane, Snapchat has become more appealing because it provides immediate communication and
information. Its use of visuals and time limits incentivizes users to create messages that are quick and easy to convey. Snapchat is changing the depth and frequency of conversations, the means by which celebrities and news outlets share information and the way relationships are formed and maintained — and it’s doing so 10 seconds at a time.

*Watson is a staff member of The Occidental Weekly

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