How Instagram Opened a Ruthless New Chapter in the Teen Photo Wars

The two apps that dominate high-school social life

Robert Nickelsberg / Getty

Exactly one month ago, Instagram pilfered a major feature from Snapchat, and the teen photo wars entered a new and more ruthless chapter.

The feature, Instagram “Stories,” lets a user share a photo or video that will be automatically deleted after 24 hours. This closely resembles a Snapchat feature, also named “Stories,” that lets users share a photo or video that will be automatically deleted after 24 hours.

As the Times put it, “some might say [Instagram’s feature] is a carbon copy.” Some might. Some might even highlight that the only significant difference between the two features is their context: While a 24-hour Snapchat story lasts much longer than a 10-second disappearing Snapchat message, a 24-hour Instagram story perishes faster than an Instagram post, which is never automatically deleted. In other words, Snapchat invented stories to promote permanence, but Instagram adopted them to encourage ephemerality.

Despite knowing all this, and despite feeling a little guilty whenever I use it, I’ve found Instagram’s new feature beguiling. Instagram’s stories look better than Snapchat’s: They’re higher resolution, and the editing tools lend themselves to more elegant doodling. Unlike Snapchat, Instagram doesn’t have geofilters or face filters, but that gives it a quieter, less commercial feel. And while I used Snapchat Stories regularly for years, I immediately discovered that more people watched my Instagram story than my Snapchat story—though that may be a fluke of my personal network.

Instagram’s move was partly aimed at a segment one demographic notch below mine: The teenagers who use both Snapchat and Instagram and who will, to some extent, determine the former product’s fate. Millions of teens have migrated much of their daily photo-messaging to Snapchat, which offers many of Instagram’s perks in a more private venue. Could Instagram lure them back? And how did Snapchat—an app that some adults find impenetrable—attract so many kids in the first place?

To find out, I asked a member of this generation: my 14 year-old brother, a rising freshman at a generic American suburban public high school.

My brother uses both Instagram and Snapchat. Lately, he seemed to be posting much more on Snapchat than on Instagram. I thought he would have one of the more enlightening perspectives on the new Instagram-Snapchat secret wars.

Our transcript, with my annotations, follows below. I’ve edited some parts of it for clarity.

Rob: Okay, so we’re about a month in. Have you found anyone seriously using Instagram Stories? Has anyone switched from using Snapchat Stories to Instagram Stories? You are my informant for this.

Rob’s Brother: I don’t really feel like anyone uses their Instagram story—people use it, but not as much as they use their Snapchat story. With Snapchat Stories, they have the expectation that their friends will see it, but with Instagram, you can’t really trust that it’s just your friends who will be seeing it.

Rob: So how often do you check people’s Snapchat Stories?

Rob’s Brother: Twice a day. But I don’t usually go to the stories section—when I open Snapchat, I don’t check stories every time.

Rob: Can you give me an example of what an average Snapchat use is? You open the app, and what happens?

Rob’s Brother: I think the generic Snapchat exchange is an exchange of selfies to keep a streak going. I find that Snapchat conversations involving pictures don’t really involve actually a … conversation. It’s just, like, exchanging pictures.

Rob, later: This is one of the lesser-known aspects of Snapchat, especially among non-teens. If you exchange snaps with someone for more than three days in a row, a number starts to appear next to their name on the app. This signifies that you have “a streak” going with them. Every day you keep the streak going, the number counts up. After a 100-day streak, the 100 emoji appears. And an arcane set of emoji start to appear next to their name on Snapchat, too: Emojipedia has an explainer of what these mean, but a yellow heart, for instance, signifies that you and someone else are “best friends”—that they are the person you send and receive snaps with the most.

Rob: How do you decide who to develop streaks with?

Rob’s Brother: I don’t know. Sometimes it’s like, “I want to get another streak, I’ll go ask this person.” Or it’s like: “This person seems cool, I guess I’ll have a streak with them.”

Rob: Are you intentional about the streaks? They’re not an accident?

Rob’s Brother: Yeah, they’re not an accident. I have not initiated that many streaks. I think you just ask someone who you want to spend more time with if they want to have a streak. It’s also like—for people who are going on Snapchat everyday, it’s not a big deal to add another streak. And then the more streaks you have, the better it looks.

Rob: So do other people look at your Snapchat page?

Rob’s Brother: I avoid it—no one has really looked at my Snapchat page. But I think the thing that Snapchat’s for, at our age, is that we all view Snapchat score as a competition. 
I think people find it pleasing when they get a 100-day streak.

Rob, later: Someone’s Snapchat score is the sum total of all the snaps they’ve ever received, all the snaps they’ve ever sent, and all the snaps they’ve ever posted to their story. It is publicly viewable and the object of some teasing. My Snapchat score is 10,085.

Rob: But then, it also sounds like—it does sound like it is a status thing, even if you don’t show it.

Rob’s Brother: I’d say that the higher the number of your streaks—I don’t how to put this—the more streaks you have and the higher they are, generally, the more “popular” you are, in air quotes.

Rob: So how many streaks do you have?

Rob’s Brother: Seven or eight.

Rob: Do you have a sense that’s an average number?

Rob’s Brother: Yeah, that’s pretty average. Most people are near where I am, with a score in the 10,000s. But then there are people with 15 streaks, four of them into 200 days, and their Snapchat score is 400,000.

Rob: Your Snapchat score is 19,000, almost 20,000.

Rob’s Brother: It’s … not that great. It’s low for someone my age, I’ll put it that way.

Rob:  So does the status inherent in a Snapchat score—does that transmit by you talking about it, or by you casually mentioning it, occasionally, when Snapchat comes up in conversation?

Rob’s Brother: I’d say your Snapchat score and how many streaks you have are more symbolic of your popularity than they transmit about your popularity, if you know what I mean. Like, the better you are at Snapchat, the better you are in the social hierarchy of school.

Rob: Do you find people do that thing where they post something to their Snapchat story that’s only aimed at two to three people? Like, someone is trying to send a message to someone they like, or someone they want to be better friends with, but they don’t just want to send a snap directly to them.

Rob’s Brother: Oh, you mean like the “anyone up” post, or something like that?

Rob: Ha, yes. Can you talk a little more about the semiotics of the “Anyone Up” post?

Rob’s Brother: I think it’s often used by people who are just bored, and they know that anyone who they’re friends with on Snapchat wouldn’t mind talking to them. But I’ve never seen an “anyone up” post and been like, “oh, okay, I’ll have a conversation.” I’m sure there are some people who only actually want two or three people to talk to them when they’re “up,” so if you Snapchatted them and were like, “Hi, what’s up,” they’d be like “Sorry, going to bed.”

Rob: Is there anything else like “anyone up” where there’s like, standard types of snaps that you see people most to their stories? Is there any other types of posts that are like “anyone up”?

Rob’s Brother: Well, there’s a more blunt version of that, and that’s “bored hmu.”

Rob: You said Snapchat symbolizes popularity more than it transmits it. Are there certain things that people do on Snapchat that read as socially inept?

Rob’s Brother: I think … there are different methods of using Snapchat. There’s one where you assume that all 40 of your friends on Snapchat are just your friends from school—like, the people who sit at your lunch table—so you just post 50 posts on your story of you like, googling your favorite boy band. This is a thing.

Rob: Like, this is a thing as in—snapping your own internet usage?

Rob’s Brother: Well, I do not do this. And I don’t think many people do. But it’s a thing.

Rob: I know you’re a huge Zayn fan…

Rob, later: My brother is not a huge Zayn fan.

Rob’s Brother: There’s also a format of Snapchat story where you zoom into your best friend as far as you can in 10 seconds. And generally it’s candid.

Rob: Okay, okay, I’ve seen that, I feel like—

Rob’s Brother: I think stories are also more casual on Snapchat still, and less formal, than they are on Instagram. It’s a more casual way of saying, look at me, I’m hanging out with friends, I have a life.

Rob: That seems a part of the candid thing.

Rob’s Brother: Yeah, exactly. Just taking candid pictures of your friends doing things is advertising to the world that you don’t spend your whole day inside watching TV.

Rob: The bad candid picture of your friends—I feel like it’s also a way of being like, look, we’re so cool, we don’t even have to look cool, I don’t need to make this person look attractive in any way. But I might be reading too much into it.

Rob’s Brother: I think on Instagram, if you make someone look unattractive, that’s what you’re saying. On Snapchat, there’s an assumption that you’re advertising all this stuff only to your friends.

Rob: It does sound like there’s a double inner-circle effect here—and not that this is any different from how I use Snapchat—but the people who I Snapchat with are usually my close friends. I don’t care how they read my Stories, because they’re my friends, they don’t care what I’m doing; but then there is the outer ring who I may care more about, either because I want to become better friends with those people or—

Rob’s Brother: —so they don’t assume that you’re weird? Yeah, exactly, I agree with that. I think you saw my Squatty Potty post?

Rob: I did see your Squatty Post post.

Rob, later: My brother had posted a Snapchat about a squatting-style toilet.

Rob’s Brother: I was slightly concerned about how my social standing would be after I posted something about “easier elimination.”

(Potty crosstalk.)

Rob: Do you feel like the set of people who you’re friends with and the set of people who you Snapchat with are totally overlapping?

Rob’s Brother: In most cases, no. Mostly because I have a lot of friends who either aren’t on Snapchat or don’t really do a lot on Snapchat, so I don’t think so, no. Most of my friends I don’t overlap with.

Rob: Do you have Snapchat friends?

Rob’s Brother: Friends who I’m friends with on Snapchat but not friends with in real life, is that your definition?

Rob: Friends who you’re better friends with on Snapchat than you are in real life. Here’s a parable: I definitely had AIM friends. Do you know what AIM is?

Rob’s Brother: Did you have MySpace friends?

Rob: No, I didn’t have a Myspace. Although Myspace is an interesting parallel here because, do you know about the top-eight friends?

Rob’s Brother: No, I have no idea how Myspace worked.

Rob: So, on Myspace, you had a couple hundred friends, but only your top eight friends displayed, and—this was slightly before my time—but there was a lot of status-seeking in which eight friends you displayed and what it meant. You might have someone in your top friends, but did they have you in their top eight friends? People got knocked out.

Rob’s Brother: Oh. There isn’t much of that on Snapchat, because A, you can have as many friends as you want, and B, you can make someone your best friend by just snapping them a lot.

Rob: Do you get Snaps from people that are like, let’s have a streak?

Rob’s Brother: I don’t get them that much. I think other people do.

Rob: “Hey, you, let’s have a streak.” That’s what they say?

Rob’s Brother: Yeah—I don’t get them that much, but that may be because I don’t have a poppin’ Snapchat.

Rob: Do people talk about other people’s Snapchat?

Rob’s Brother: I think other people talk about a conversation they had with somebody, usually in response to an “anyone up?” post, but only with their friends. There’s not a huge amount of talking about Snapchat. There’s more talk about Instagram than Snapchat.

Rob: Okay, so this is a good transition to Instagram.

Rob’s Brother: [sarcastic transition background music]

Rob: Do you find people still Instagram? I notice you seem to be Instagramming less.

Rob’s Brother: I just think that—and this just goes for boys my age—

Rob: Whoa. Gender-specific.

Rob’s Brother: When you first get Instagram, you Instagram stuff a lot.

Rob: Gotta build up that archive.

Rob’s Brother: Yeah, exactly. You think, I can share this with whoever I want, I want to share it with my friends. Especially because I didn’t have a Snapchat when I got Instagram, so I wanted to show a lot of trivial stuff. Now I would put most of that on Snapchat.

Rob: That’s such a good testament to the way that those two platforms work, definitely also for adults. Instagram at this point is just pretty pictures and occasional life events that I want to advertise. And Snapchat is, like, here’s a thing that’s funny, and here’s a joke about it. Or, I’m bored, and here’s my face that looks like a dog.

Rob’s Brother: I think Instagram Stories is trying to get Instagram some of that funny stuff too. I think there are some people who post trivial stuff on their Instagram, but generally they’re not that great? Instagram just feels too formal. Like, “everyone’s gonna see this”—I feel like, often, Instagram is your first impression on a lot of people.

Rob: It is! It is the most public part of most people’s internet persona.

Rob’s Brother: And as you use Instagram to get a first impression on other people, you realize that people are using yours to get a first impression on you. So then you change it.

Rob: You start performing for a generic internet person, or a generic high schooler, and you start performing less for your friends.

Rob’s Brother: Yeah.

Rob: So do you find the use of Instagram generally is going down? Do you remember to check it everyday?

Rob’s Brother: I check it everyday, definitely. There is a period during the school year when I had a lot going on and I didn’t check it everyday. Also I feel like people don’t post on Instagram as much during the winter, because people definitely want to show off the beach day, but they know that people don’t really care about them sipping hot cocoa and doing homework.

Rob: This is so real. It’s really such a summer social network, because you need visually interesting things to be happening—

Rob’s Brother: Well, more than visually interesting. You can get visually interesting winter posts, but—

Rob: But you can only do so many cozy pics.

Rob’s Brother: You can only do cozy pics or snow pics, and the thing is that people don’t really carry their phone out into the snow. I think that’s the other thing. People carry their phone during the summer a lot more than they do during the winter, because it’s a lot less likely for your phone to fall out of your pocket and immediately be ruined.

I also feel like, winter is during the school year, so you get to communicate with your friends more, and they know what you’re doing more.

Rob: So Instagram is almost like a postcard-y medium? It’s like postcards for teens. Not that I got that many postcards as a kid, at all, but Instagram—

Rob’s Brother:  No, you don’t get postcards.

Rob: —it has that, like, hey, here’s what I’m doing while I’m not at school.

Rob’s Brother: Instagram is, hey, here’s a big thing I just did. While Snapchat is more, hey, here’s what I’m doing, plus check out this silly product that let you poop better.

Rob: Do you find people use Instagram messaging at all?

Rob’s Brother: It’s only ever if you want to share a dank meme with somebody. It’s just a dank meme messenger. Have you ever heard of a Finsta?

Rob: No. Or, I heard you use that term when I was at home, and I looked it up.

Rob’s Brother: It’s like a personal Instagram that’s private, and it’s only got like 25 followers. It’s not for the likes, and it’s not for anyone else to see. And you post, like, very personal things on it.

Rob: So it’s like people using a private Twitter? So Finsta is like you and your 19 best friends?

Rob’s Brother: You and your 40 best friends. I think generally if someone’s in your grade, and they want to follow your Finsta, you accept them, but there isn’t that much on a Finsta, honestly. If you’re not their friend, it’s not that interesting.

Rob: I mean, what do they complain about? Their parents..?

Rob’s Brother: Yes. Correct. It’s mostly complaining and bad selfies. Roasting teachers. They’re generally not that interesting. I feel like they’re almost the equivalent of a diary.

Rob: I mean, I know adults who have private locked Twitter accounts and they use it mostly for complaining about work or family stuff.

Rob’s Brother: Yeah, it’s mostly for complaining. And people with Finstas don’t want people to see them complaining because A, if you don’t know them, it translates as whininess, and B, if you do know them, you have a chance of being mean to somebody. The other appeal of a Finsta is that your parents can’t find you on a Finsta. I don’t have a Finsta.

Rob: Of course you don’t have a Finsta.

Rob’s Brother: I honestly don’t. I think one of the illuminating posts I saw on a Finsta was “Sorry for not spamming…” Literally, he thinks people have the expectation that he will post every hour on his Finsta about little minor things in his life. He’s like, sorry I haven’t been posting six posts a day. Isn’t that interesting?