What Is Snapchat?

A primer on the photosharing service that Facebook reportedly offered to buy for $3 billion.
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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."

That's certainly marketing, but the market is there

The Simple Magic of the Sign-Up Process

Snapchat's sign-up process is particularly slick. Rather than importing your Facebook friends or Twitter followers, like many other applications, it makes use of the contacts on your phone. If you've got a phone number in your phone, you can find out if that person is on Snapchat. 

This has some interesting consequences for users. One, it provides a clean slate without all the cruft of previous social networks. Two, it creates a different and more intimate kind of social network than you'd find elsewhere. These are people you know-know, most likely from the physical world. Three, giving someone a phone number opens up the possibility of later Snapchatting. 

For Snapchat, it means they've got novel social webs. They don't have to share any data with any established social network. 

How does Snapchat actually work?

Once you've found your friends on Snapchat, you can simply start taking pictures and sending them out to as many friends as you want.

The app has a couple of distinguishing features in terms of photo taking. One, users can draw on their photos. So that's funny sometimes. Two, you can caption any photo. Three, you get to set how long — from 1-10 seconds — the photograph will be visible to receivers. 

Crucially, too, the app tells you when your snaps are opened by the receiver. You know they saw it. 

When you get a snap, you press and hold the alert to keep looking at it for as long as you can. 

People don't maintain profiles, as such, but the service calculates a "score" based on your activity and will list up to three "best friends," who are the people you communicate the most with. There is no posting to walls or onto a public timeline, though you can have a couple pictures or videos that comprise your "story" at any given moment. Any of your contacts can view your story.

What all this means is that sending a snap to people is an invitation to a (largely visual) conversation. The formal limitations of the software make it feel different from texting; it's like Twitter in that it generates spontaneous, light interaction.

Although the basics are simple, there are many little games and moments of dramatic tension embedded in the interface. Has so-and-so looked at the photo? Did they screenshot it? Did they reply with something? Who gets to be your best friend? Who has the highest score? What are people's stories? 

Even if not everyone partakes in each of these types of activities, they are available to be played. 

The writer Kathryn Schulz recently described Twitter as "Sentences With Friends" because Twitter is a kind of game, even if there are no official rules or winners. In that sense, Snapchat is a game, too, and it's really, really fun.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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