A trip to future land: My snapchat endeavour

So 07 Januar 2018

"You're gonna like it" and "just wait a few days, and you'll also snap all the time". These were the promises I was told while Snapchat was being installed on my phone. I was now amongst them. Pssst I now had Snapchat.

Snapchat. Some describe the company that is, basically, What's App with photos, as the next big thing. The next generation of social networks. A new step in our ever going technological evolution. Others see the stock price of Snap Inc. that almost halved since it's IPO in March 2017 with a slight grin of satisfaction. I used to be in the later camp, poking fun at people taking "snaps" in public.

So there I was. Holding my iPhone with this shiny new yellow icon on its home screen. Opening the app and playing around with it for a few minutes I realized one thing. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. Before describing my journey I might have to add who I am and why this was a deeply uncomfortable realization. With my 21 years, I wouldn't describe myself as old. Being born in the late 90's I grew up when the internet, and more importantly the smartphone, started to explode. It was this technology that fascinated me and lead me to study Computer Science, currently pursuing an MSc degree in the field of machine learning. I always thought of myself as a man of technology, laughing at my mother who, with her 50 years, had problems sending a gif over What's App. And here I was, the tech-savvy CS student who was beaten by an app that every 16-year old on the planet seemed to understand. Was I the strange old guy who fails at technological progress now?

For those of you not brave (or crazy) enough to install the app, let me describe the first experience. You open the app and are greeted with a camera view. Snapchat is, as the name might suggest, all about photos. There is a text chat but you'd normally take a snap, write some comment over the image, and send it on to your contacts. The important part? There is no state. While on What's App I can scroll back over the last 2 years of chat with my friends, snaps disappear from your phone after you have opened them. All this makes one thing very clear. Snapchat is not about sharing the interesting and exciting things happening once every 2 weeks. It is about sharing the moment, or rather, sharing for the sake of sharing. I would later find out (or, to be more honest, be told) that there are also a gazillion stickers that personalize with my "Bitmoji", a more or less accurate emoji representation of myself.

Opening the contacts page you are presented with a view of the people that have added you and with whom you can snap. Besides the names, you also find something that looks like Apple's emojii designer had diarrhea. To be honest, even after using the app for almost a year now, I can't tell you what everyone of these means. And snapchat doesn't explain this in the app. Don't have a 16-year old handy to ask? Well too bad. A concept I could grasp were the "flames". After exchanging at least one snap with a person each day you get "a flame". And each day you keep this streak going your flames grow by one. Miss a day? All your flames are gone. Psychologists call this technique of fostering streaks a habit formation loop. As the name suggests it is highly habit-forming and flames become (or rather pretend to be) a virtual indicator of how much you care for a certain person. You become, intended or not, attached to a number that, in reality, does not mean anything other than that you send a picture over the internet and received one. Besides flames, there are hearts if you and another person snap the most with each other, cool guy emoji for your best friend(at least that's what I think it means) and everything else your emoji keyboard has to offer. For explanations what each emoji means, please consult your nearest 16-year old.

So far so good. Why am I being so disgusted by this whole culture? Well, by using every habit forming technique the psychologist's toolbox has to offer, snapchat creates a highly addictive parallel reality. A reality where meaningless numbers and trivial moments become "the thing". Once you reach a certain number of contacts on snapchat, there is no stopping. Minute after minute you receive "snaps". "Snaps" of somebody's cat laying on the floor, breakfast, the garden or shoes some girl you never talk to in school just bought. You start to follow somebodies live by starring at your screen and looking at what they are doing rather than experiencing the life around you. And the state-less system fosters you to share everything. A private life exposed to all your friends to take part in. A "privilege" that, until recently only stars using the "Bild Zeitung" could "enjoy". You realize how crazy (and effective) this entire system is once you have received a black snap with the caption "Hi I'm X and I am keeping Z's flames alive while she is on vacation" every single morning for a whole week. Don't get me wrong, I like pictures of cute cats as much as everyone else (after all that is what the internet is for, isn't it?) but I really don't need an update of your cat's current sleeping position every 2 minutes.

It is this "always on" culture that really disgusted me. Learning something or working on a certain subject requires focus. And here I was, trying to focus on my lecture notes while, a few inches away, was the whole wide world. More importantly, it wasn't the internet where strangers are doing something awesome 24/7. I can restraint myself from that and stay away rather well. No, it was my social circle, my "friends" and their life. Their stories. Aren't I culturally supposed to care about them? You catch yourself in a constant state of being unfocused. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that everybodies work will go south once you install Snapchat. But the way the app is designed, the way its embedded community works, it fosters this behavior of "always watching - always sharing". It takes 15 minutes for a human brain to fully focus on a task at hand. If you are a good citizen of the United States of Snapchat, you won't get to that focus. Ever.

So what did a year of Snapchat teach me? Do I hate the internet now? No. I still think that the internet is the most important invention of the 21st century. And, in contrast to other big inventions of that era, one with a huge net positive for our species. Do I hate snapchat? Or the people working there? No. I think they are kind of ingenious. They clearly seem to understand how to form a habit in us and, while snapchat is an obvious target to pick on, there are huge teams of very smart people (and algorithms) all over Silicon Valley working on optimizing the stream of content that the internet is blowing our way every day for two things: Consumption time and retention rate. So, you surely hate the society for letting this happen? No. I deeply believe that technological progress is what evolves our society and leads to a more prosperous future.
I guess deep down I don't really know what I am mad at. Let's see if an algorithm tells me. And for the big question: Am I going to keep on using snapchat? Yes, but without the notifications enabled. This way I decide when to look at your cats latest sleeping position and not you.

P.S. While writing the initial draft of this article, which took about an hour and 30 minutes, I snapped 6 times and received 10 snaps. Overall I have snapped about 30 times and looked at 20-ish picture messages in the last 8 hours that I've been awake.