What Is Snapchat?

A primer on the photosharing service that Facebook reportedly offered to buy for $3 billion.
A typical snap and reply.

Snapchat is a photo-sharing service with one key distinguishing feature: the photos you send disappear. Seconds after opening "snaps," users can no longer access them and the images are deleted from the company's servers. Snapchat is an ephemera generating and sharing machine. 

There are ways around the disappearance: a user can screenshot the image, but when the receiver does, the sender is informed. (More surreptitiously, users can photograph the phone with another camera.)

Snapchat has shown remarkable growth. From its debut in September of 2011 to today, the service has amassed 100 million users. In June of this year, its users sent 200 million photos per day. By September, two years after launch, friends were sending each other 350 million photos per day. 

With that kind of growth, it's no surprise that the company has many suitors, despite generating $0 in revenue ("pre-revenue" is a useful euphemism here). They've taken $70 million in venture capital. And recently, Facebook reportedly offered $3 billion for the company.

Snapchat said no. 

Maybe you're a late adopter of Snapchat, or you just want to know why your kids seem addicted to it. Perhaps you're just curious what the fuss is about. This primer is for you. 

The big takeaway is: Snapchat is onto something, and it's much bigger than sexting. The service is a reaction to the saturation of social networking and the the dominant interaction modes on Facebook and Twitter. It's an immune response, nurtured in the tweaky rebelliousness of teenagedom, to the forces of Big Data, behavioral targeting, and the need to record every stupid little thing in the world. 

Snapchat might be the defining product of our technophilic, technoanxious age.

All numbers according to Snapchat (Alexis Madrigal)

Why do people use Snapchat?

Because the service took off first with teens and because of the obvious possibility that people could send each other any kind of photos, much of the media attention lavished on Snapchat over the last year has focused on sexting. Teen sexting. Dangerous teen sexting!

But sexting, let alone teen sexting, is a tiny slice of what happens on Snapchat. The most titilating possibilities have obscured the millions of other ways that people use Snapchat. Think about this: 350 million photos per day are now shared on the service. That's a little less than seven times the number of pictures that Instagram users post.

The company has tapped into a deep desire among younger Internet users for ephemeral communication, for activity that doesn't have to be entered in the global logbook in the cloud. The very searchability and findability and recordability that are the foundation of Facebook (and Google) is anathema to Snapchat users. 

Kids — and increasingly, adults — want a space to play and experiment without everyone knowing about it. 

Nine months after Snapchat launched, Evan Siegel, one of the company's cofounders, had realized what they'd hit on. It was a social network where you didn't have to spend so much time worrying about how you looked. 

"We’re building a photo app that doesn’t conform to unrealistic notions of beauty or perfection," he blogged, "but rather creates a space to be funny, honest or whatever else you might feel like at the moment you take and share a Snap."

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