The new Snapchat is here, and in an opinion piece-slash-press release on Axios announcing it, Evan Spiegel, the co-founder and CEO of Snap Inc., wrote about how “the personalized newsfeed” has inherently changed the way we communicate with each other, which comes” at a huge cost to facts, our minds and the entire media industry.”
In the piece, Spiegel’s acknowledgement of how social media, including Snapchat, has changed the way we consume news and content, segues into an announcement about the app’s redesign, which rolls out to some users this week. The redesign seeks to separate “the social from the media” by splitting up publisher content, such as content from brands, from what your friends are posting. “Now, everything that’s produced by a friend, whether it’s a chat message, a snap sent just to one person, or a 24-hour public Story, will appear when a user swipes to the right from the main screen of the app,” Mike Murphy writes for Quartz. And if you swipe left, you’ll be taken to the Discover page, which will show social media influencers, “user-generated Stories curated by Snapchat editors,” Murphy writes, plus “news and brands and listicles and tabloid gossip,” Brian Feldman reports for Select All. The new Snapchat will also sort the order in which you see your friends based on who the platform’s algorithms think you want to contact most, according to Feldman.
This is a good thing, in many ways. It aims to make our experience on the platform more human-oriented and connect us to the people we actually want to interact with. Plus, it gives us the option to disengage with brands’ halfhearted attempts to connect with today’s youth. And on a larger level, the redesign signals (at least superficially) that major platforms are addressing how technology can be reoriented to help us use these platforms more deliberately and mindfully.
But this gets complicated. Spiegel writes that the new Snapchat will show you content based on “your interests—not the interests of ‘friends’—and to make sure media companies also profit off the content they produce for our Discover platform.” He adds that this model will hopefully “guard against fake news and mindless scrambles for friends or unworthy distractions.”
Creating new methods to help stop the spread of false information, and taking steps to help us see content that’s actually worth our time, is essential. But this entire utopian sentiment is somewhat hilariously contradictory, ignoring the fact that Snapchat is deliberately designed to keep users coming back for more, which seems in and of itself the definition of a mindless scramble and unworthy distraction.
As Business Insider has reported, 158 million people use Snapchat each day, opening the app around 18 times. “That means, on average, Snapchat users are spending between 25 to 30 minutes in the app everyday,” BI’s Biz Carson wrote.
So while curating a feed “based on what you want to watch, not what your friends post” sounds noble, it also means we’ll be spending more time on the app because the platform is giving us exactly what we want. And that means the company wins, while we lose time to engage with our friends offline.
This gets even murkier when Spiegel writes that Snapchat “began as an escape from social media, where people could send photos and videos to their friends without the pressures of likes, comments, and permanence.” The ephemerality of Snapchat does make it different from many social media platforms. But there is also the issue of pressure that comes with using Snapchat today, especially for teens.
In 2015, data from the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of all American teens were Snapchat users, a number which has likely climbed since then. And teens are especially vulnerable to a feature called Snapchat streaks (Snapstreaks for short), when “two people send Snaps back and forth on Snapchat for a consecutive number of days,” as Rachel Thompson wrote earlier this year for Mashable. You have to do it daily, within a 24-hour window, lest you lose your streak and the coveted emojis that come with it, which show all your “friends” how long you’ve lasted.
Emily Weinstein, a Harvard researcher who studies how adolescents use social media, told me via email that Snapstreaks can be both good and bad for teens’ well-being. For a forthcoming study, she conducted a series of interviews with high-school aged teens and found that in some cases, “casual snaps and streaks made them more comfortable with particular peers from school,” she wrote. “At the same time, I also heard repeatedly that streaks can become burdensome and chore-like.”
And teens go to seemingly extreme measures to keep their streaks alive. “I interviewed teens who described having to recruit friends to ‘manage’ their streaks while they were traveling or without internet access,” sometimes for weeks at a time, Weinstein wrote. Thompson mentions this in her Mashable piece as well, noting that “streaksitters” babysit streaks while their friends are on vacation or, you know, sleeping.
In addition to the fear of losing the streak itself, there’s a social pressure. Weinstein told me many teens felt they needed to keep “dozens of streaks” going for fear that ending the streak would offend the recipient. She added that when a streak is “dropped,” the uncertainty about whether this was an accident or a deliberate snub can cause understandable social stress.
Thompson also interviewed a number of teens about what it felt like to lose a Snapstreak, and found many teens are genuinely devastated when the streak breaks. “Honestly, after losing a Snapchat streak of 571 days, I felt heartbroken,” one teen told her. Some people were so outraged after losing their streaks that they created petitions on Change.org demanding Snapchat restore their streak.
And this very pervasive FOMO (fear of missing out) has a detrimental impact on mental health. The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in the UK studied how different platforms impact the mental health of people between 14 and 24 years old, CNN reported earlier this year. They surveyed almost 1,500 people about how social media platforms affect self-identity, body image, anxiety and depression. Instagram was rated the most negative, with Snapchat coming in second. Those platforms are both image-focused, which might be “driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people,” Shirley Cramer, CEO of RSPH told Business Insider.
Snapchat is far from alone in having potentially negative effects on its users, of course. And while this redesign leaves much room for improvement, social media platforms should evolve their models to be more user-friendly.
The issue is that glossing over the variety of ways that Snapchat continues to gain from our attention spans while simultaneously claiming its redesign is saving us from “mindless scrambles for friends or unworthy distractions” leaves us skeptical. If social media companies really want to save us from those things, the good news is there’s plenty more they can do with their next redesigns.