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What's So Hot About Snapchat?

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Snapchat is a new photo/video/social networking app that provides a high level of privacy for users. This is making Snapchat a huge hit with younger users who don't want their every image and message tracked forever online. In this article, author Michael Miller describes how Snapchat works, how it differs from Instagram and other social photo apps, and why you might want to use it.
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Have you ever taken and shared a photo or video that you later regretted? Sent an embarrassing photo that your close friends might appreciate to your co-workers or family who didn't appreciate it at all? Had an old social network post you made years ago come back to haunt you?

Then you'll appreciate Snapchat, the photo and video sharing app that's a ton more private than Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Unlike those other social networks, Snapchat doesn't offer any public sharing or searching; your "snaps" go directly to the individuals you specify, and to no one else. The general public cannot find your snaps by browsing or searching, they're truly private. And, even better, they disappear 10 seconds after viewing, so not even your friends can keep a copy to embarrass you later.

What Is Snapchat?

Snapchat is a unique and popular mobile app that lets users share digital photos and videos with friends—and then have those photos and videos disappear, forever. The Snapchat app is available for both iOS and Android devices.

Let's break that down.

Figure 1 The Snapchat app icon

First of all, Snapchat is a mobile app. There's no website to speak of, and no way to use it on your desktop or notebook computer. It's an app that runs on your smartphone or maybe your tablet, if you're one of those who uses your tablet to take digital pictures.

Second, Snapchat takes photos, much as Instagram does. While Snapchat only offers a handful of special effects filters (Instagram has more than a dozen), it does let you draw on the screen or even add text on top of your photos.

Third, Snapchat also takes videos, up to 10 seconds in length. That's a lot like Instagram's 15-second videos or Vine's 6-second ones.

Fourth, Snapchat lets you share these photos and videos with your friends—and only your friends. You snap a photo or video and then decide who to send it to. There's no public option, and there's no way to search or browse for photos and videos. You share only with those individuals you choose, on a picture-by-picture basis. (That is, there's no scrolling "feed" of new photos that all your friends see—they only see those snaps you choose to send them.)

Fifth, and perhaps most important, when you send a photo or video, you choose how long that item remains visible to its recipients. You can have a photo or video stay visible for anywhere from one to ten seconds. When the viewer taps the screen to view the item, the countdown begins. When the time limit is up, that photo or video disappears from that person's mobile device. There is no trace of the photo or video, nothing for the recipient to pull back up at a later date or share with someone else.

Snapchat also lets users create "Stories," which is a constantly updated collection of your most recent snaps. Snaps disappear from a Story after 24 hours; new snaps are automatically added to the end of the continuing Story.

In addition, Snapchat offers the related Snapkidz app for users under age 13. Snapkidz lets kids take Snaps and draw on them, but not send them to other users; they can only store and view their Snaps on their own mobile devices.

Who Uses Snapchat—And Why?

If you haven't heard of Snapchat before, don't be embarrassed; it's a relatively new phenomenon. Snapchat was founded (as a class project) in April 2011, by Stanford University students Reggie Brown and Evan Spiegal. (A third partner, Bobby Murphy, was brought in to help with the technical side of things.) The Snapchat app launched publicly in September 2011. It was an immediate hit; by November 2012, more than 1 billion photos had been shared by Snapchat users, with 20 million new snaps shared each day.

Today, Snapchat has a user base in excess of 50 million people. It's big thing among the high school and college crowds; the median age of Snapchat users is just 18 years old. (It's also popular for sexting; you don't have to worry about the explicit images you send popping up elsewhere online.)

Why are younger users so enamored with Snapchat? It all has to do with the privacy and lack of long-term history that Snapchat offers. Youngsters are growing increasingly wary about sharing too much of their private lives publicly on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To them, the ability to have their photos "disappear" after viewing is massively appealing. With Snapchat, they don't have to worry about having embarrassing photos viewed by their parents or employers, or of having those photos pop up years later when least expected.

The "disappearing photos" thing is also appealing to older users, and in fact Snapchat is seeing a big increase in the number of users aged 40 and up. When you just want to post something fun and not worry about it dogging you down the line, Snapchat is the perfect app to use. It's even better than text messaging; the snaps you send aren't saved on recipients' mobile phones as text messages are.

By the way, other companies have noted Snapchat's success and tried to cut themselves in. In November 2013, Snapchat's founders turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer (in cash!) from Facebook, and later a $4 billion offer from Google. A November 2013 article in Forbes noted that Facebook's offer was triggered by the older social network's difficulties in retaining younger users: "The kids who are losing their passion for Facebook are pretty much exactly the same ones who are flocking to Snapchat by the millions."

How Snapchat Works

Snapping and sharing a picture with the Snapchat app is as easy as sending a photo via text messaging on your phone. From within the Snapchat app, decide whether you want to use your phone's normal camera or the front-facing camera. (Believe it or not, 80% of photos shared on Snapchat are selfies!) Tap the big round button at the bottom of the screen to take the picture (see Figure 2), which advances you to the preview screen. From here you can tap the pencil icon at the top right to draw on the screen, or tap the screen to display the onscreen keyboard and add a text overlay to the photo. Swipe left or right to choose a photo filter, if you like.

Figure 2 Shooting a selfie with the Snapchat app

You also use the preview screen to set how long this photo can be viewed. The default timer is 10 seconds, but you can tap the timer icon at the bottom left to select a shorter duration (see Figure 3). Make your choices, then tap the right arrow button to display the Send To screen.

Figure 3 Enhancing a snap with text and setting the time limit

From here you select who you want to send this photo to. Select one or more people, then tap the right arrow button. The snap is now sent to those you selected.

Taking a video is similarly easy. From the camera screen, tap and hold (instead of just tapping) the big round button to take a video. The duration of the video shows as a round ring around the record button. When you're done shooting, finish it off and send it as you would a photo.

All the snaps you've sent and received are displayed on Snapchat's main screen (see Figure 4). Tap and hold any photo or video you've received to view it for the allotted duration. When the time is up, it disappears.

Figure 4 Viewing snaps you've sent and received

Final Thoughts

Note that all snaps and Stories are stored on Snapchat's servers for 30 days or until all recipients have viewed them, whichever comes first. Expired snaps and Stories are then permanently deleted from Snapchat servers.

Also note that while Snapchat is a lot less public than other social networks, your snaps aren't guaranteed to be 100% private. Users can take screenshots of the snaps you send, although it isn't easy—you need to keep your finger on the screen while viewing. And there's no guarantee that your photos are safe from viewing on Snapchat's servers; it's possible that your favorite government entity can access those servers and dig up what's stored there, even snaps that have been theoretically deleted.

Still, Snapchat is a much better way to go than Facebook or Instagram when you want to share private potentially embarrassing photos and videos with a select group of friends—and not worry about those photos having a life of their own. Snapchat is designed for capturing fun moments, and for sharing those moments with your friends. Check it out—the app is free, so what do you have to lose?

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