A few weeks ago, TechCrunch reported on comScore’s latest findings in Social App usage among Millennials. The big news was the sustained rise of Snapchat, which registered #3 in popularity behind Facebook and Instagram. “That means the app is more popular than Twitter,” writes Sarah Perez, “Pinterest, Vine, Google or Tumblr among the millennial demographic, which comScore defines as those between the ages of 18 and 34.”
More verification for a trend many have noted: Messaging apps are trending much faster among young people than broader social platforms. There are all kinds of theories why, but the hypotheses about Snapchat—first it was sexting, then it was selfies-obsession, then it was privacy from parental gaze—probably says more about the would-be theorists than the users themselves.
We all tend to view trends through the lens of our own uses and gratifications of technologies. We grope for answers to “Why Snapchat?” because the idea of taking a picture of yourself, typing or scrawling a message across it and then sending for a supposedly ephemeral viewing does not strike us as either useful or much fun. It is interesting how often our conclusions as to “why” have a dark or negative angle when there might be a much more innocent, perhaps even hopeful, reason that Snapchat and its competitors fit better. Unless you are Twitter.
Which brings me to a young woman I met on an airplane last week who is about to embark on 7th grade. I’m not sure you can call her the typical pre-teen. For instance, she spoke at length about abstract sculpture, architecture and animal rights. When she told me about the school she attended, she concluded, “I know I am very fortunate.”
While her dad read in the next seat over, we got into a topic that I told her I write about a lot: Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. I didn’t take notes—because that would have been just weird—but I did listen carefully as she talked about those platforms. Twitter? Non-existent in her world. It was for celebrities and people who are obsessed with them.
Facebook was more useful, because it connected her with family around the country in a casual way.
“Do you use Facebook to chat?” I asked.
No. Text? Not much. Email? Heh. No, if she has something to say to a friend, it is usually snap and then chat.
“What do you like about Snapchat?” I asked.
That’s when this thoughtful young woman became understandably inarticulate.
“I don’t know,” she answered, “I just do.”
And that really is the best answer for a user. If you have to carefully think through why you like and use something, the intuitive truth of that connection would be missing.
Instead she talked in use cases. She has this friend, who she met a drama camp I surmised, who happened to be on the wait list for the flight we were on. She was checking on her friend right before the plane took off. First she was anxious (selfie of her nervous face), then depressed because the list was so long (sad face), then resolved (oh well). The facial expressions said most of it. The text confirmed it.
“Do you like taking pictures of yourself with Snapchat?”
I don’t know, she said. Really, it’s just a way of saying, hey, it’s me.
That struck me as less about self-obsession and more about connection. While Snapchat can broadcast, it is not the way this young woman (and most of my college students, for that matter) uses the app. It exists for one-to-one or few-to-few connections, and the pictures offer clear and human confirmation of who is “there.” She knew it wasn’t some safeguard from parental perusal. She had no interest, on the other hand, of spreading all messages to all people at once. Not privacy as much as intimacy.
Twitter could do all these things too, even that between-you-and-me use, because they do have a Direct Message tool. (Which has mainly been for receiving complaints and/or bot spam via connections’ compromised accounts). It’s not the basic function that worried me. It is what Twitter CEO Dick Costolo noted, as quoted in Quartz a few months ago:
“Our user research and the data is that when you connect to three or more accounts that follow you back and you can start interacting with each other, you’re much more likely to become a long-term engaged core user of the platform.”
That quote is fraught with variables that go way beyond intuitive ease. An open platform is great for news, great for thought leadership, for performing to unseen masses. But Twitter’s ecosystem of public communication and asynchronous following is simply not built for what seems supremely important to the newest generation of users: Purposeful, personal connection.
“So you like Snapchat because it’s easy to know what your friends are up to and how they’re feeling, but that message is coming straight to you instead of the whole world?” I asked.
Yeah. She was too polite to say duh.
At the end of the flight, her dad said, “You’re a nice guy. She talked the entire time.”
I thought, “Are you kidding me?” Enough talks like this could inspire the next billionaire. Either that, or I just met her.