The 90’s kids have truly seen the growth and failure, positives and negatives of social media. We started out waiting, oddly hopeful, as the modem’s tone-deaf notes pierced through our ears. We tapped endlessly on our keyboards, chatting away with the very same people we walked home with barely half an hour back. We set status updates on MSN Messenger, handpicked from a gamut of lyrics, quotes - anything that projected us as remotely ‘cool’. It was the first time we could freely talk to our best friends, barely-friends and frenemies, veiled by a computer screen. It was a classic case of ‘what happens on MSN Messenger stays on MSN Messenger,’ a thought that subconsciously comforted us. That, to me, was the true advent of social media. Over the years, the intent stayed constant, but the platforms and features increased exponentially.
In 2006, when we were past our regrettable Orkut phase, we discovered Facebook. We could upload photo albums of the happiest moments of our lives dotted with snippets of what was on our mind at any given point of time. Through status updates, photo albums, groups, bumper stickers, quizzes and games, we subconsciously curated a version of our personality that everyone would love and envy at the same time.
In 2010, we were introduced to Instagram: users could only upload a single photo or video with sepia-style filters and a caption. Over time, this would form a collection of photos on the user’s profile, which was now a visual version of their Facebook Timeline. Millennials flocked to Instagram as a temporary escape from the overdose of features, advertisements, Gen X and Baby Boomers on Facebook. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Instagram is testament to that.
Amplifying the concept of ‘less is more’, Snapchat, another multimedia-sharing mobile-only platform was launched. But, with a twist: photos and videos with short captions would self-destruct within 10 seconds. This functionality did give them some bad press, but the fact is, it emulated real life – moments that happen and then they’re over. This is probably what made the app even more exciting. Snapchat also revolutionized the ‘selfie’ by adding face-filters, ranging from puppies to face swaps. At an age where Millennials and Gen Z were craving personal connections with their friends and partners, away from their parents and grandparents’ often embarrassing presence on Facebook, Snapchat crafted a niche space for itself with an initially simple albeit raw user interface consisting of a camera, ‘Send To’ friend list and a log of sent and received snaps (‘snaps’ in Snapchat terminology includes photos and videos). By 2016, Snapchat was all the rage with its geo-filters (which could be user-generated too – ranging from festivals to Indian weddings!), an actual ‘chat’ option and plenty of brand sponsorships.
These mobile apps – Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat – formed the Holy Trinity of Social Media for Millennials. The three were tapped open one after the other – Facebook was for everyone, Instagram for just a few close friends, and Snapchat for the closest, most personal connections.
This would automatically indicate that Snapchat has the least amount of daily active users, but today, a quick look at their ratings and reviews on the App Store will tell you that even those users are alienating Snapchat. So, what exactly went wrong with the app that was once the fastest growing social network for millennials?
Snapchat tried to make up what they had lost in revenue by collaborating with platforms such as Cosmopolitan, People and Buzzfeed to name a few. These weren’t the quintessential advertisements that users were being increasingly bombarded with on Facebook (and eventually Instagram) – they were curated content pieces in a separate section within the app called ‘Discover’. Users could select the platforms they wanted access to daily, and the others would be available in the background. This move made sense for Snap Inc. as a company because it allowed them to be a legitimate form of digital media – agencies, celebrities and brands (aren’t they sort of the same thing?) thronged to make their presence felt on ‘Discover’. However, it also meant that the ‘personal touch’ that Snapchat provided was being overrun by content, which was available on the internet independently. Snapchat went from being a one-on-one medium of interaction for super close friends to an app that created content around celebrities, fashion and lifestyle.
Snapchat attempted a full-fledged redesign to fight social media giants like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They were desperate to own the space that no one else did with an idea that sounded novel – separate the ‘social’ from the ‘media’. In an initial attempt, the redesign caused a lot of confusion in terms of navigation. Users didn’t know where to go to find their friends’ stories, because these were so well-embedded in the ‘social’ tab which was a log of sent and received Snaps as in the original Snapchat. In a subsequent attempt, Snapchat combined friends’ stories with those of celebrities, ad plugins and content pieces under the ‘Discover’ button. This created a disconnect – why was I seeing my friends’ story along with The Daily Mail? A glaring takeaway from Snapchat’s redesign was more features, more confusion. A possible solution to this would have been to treat Stories as its own separate feature rather than have it muddled with Snapchat’s initial offering, which is what garnered them a user base in the first place. This is exactly what Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram are all doing, and it’s no surprise that the Stories feature on these platforms is being used way more widely than Snapchat. Soon after launching the redesign, Snapchat lost $1.3 billion in stocks and countless in users due to a tweet posted by Kylie Jenner, Gen Z Icon for reasons unknown to most of us. At least her opinion echoed that of a large percentage of Snapchat’s users.
Today, Snapchat finds itself in quite a soup. It’s still very widely used, but nothing compared to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which lately has become the hub of the ever-popular memes, thus attracting Snapchat’s audience apart from their own. Will Snapchat have the gumption to be the niche platform it started out to be, or will it quietly melt into a has-been like Orkut and MySpace? Your guess is as good as mine.