Snap! It's gone, so app users get personal

The ephemeral design of the social media app Snapchat encourages intensely personal conversations between users, according to a study jointly conducted by the Social Media Lab of Natalie Bazarova, assistant professor of communication, and the ReImagination Lab of Dan Cosley, associate professor of information science.

Researchers interviewed a group of 25 Snapchat-using Cornell students and found that they enjoy interaction in which they can be their true selves.

“Users said when friends snap each other they no longer have to worry about whether the message will be shared with an unintended person or taken out of context,” said Bin Xu, a doctoral student in the field of information science and first author of a paper on the research to be presented at the ACM conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, Feb. 27–March 2 in San Francisco. “With so much to store mentally and digitally, users reported that they enjoy being able to have an interaction where they can be their true selves without worrying about the repercussions of their exchanges.”

On Snapchat, users “friend” each other through the application and send each other picture- or text-based messages known as “snaps.” The sender decides the length of time, between one and 10 seconds, that the receiver has to view the content. After the allotted time the message disappears from the sender’s and receiver’s phones. If the receiver takes a screenshot of the message, Snapchat sends an alert to the sender. Developers of Snapchat said their goal was to make online communication more like face-to-face conversation.

Users report Snapchat friends are particularly close to the sender or are people of romantic interest, while Facebook friends tend to be casual acquaintances, the researchers noted. The combination of friend type and auto-deletion allows users to engage in intimate and self-disclosing interactions, they found. Interviewees in the Cornell study reported, for example, sending pictures of themselves waking up in the morning, eating breakfast or making ugly selfies.

“They enjoyed that in these pictures they can be themselves without caring too much about their image,” Xu said.

“The idea of sharing relevant information that disappears after a certain amount of time with only a select group of people is first introduced by Snapchat and considered as its key difference from other social media applications,” Xu said. On Facebook, for example, users can select who can see what, but it is harder to do, and content is permanent. On Snapchat, Xu explained, you pick who you want to send, they open it, you get notification that they opened it, and it no longer exists.

The researchers concluded that Snapchat’s design grants two benefits. First, auto-deletion of content and a small friend base allow users to be less self-conscious in their messages, sharing what they are actually feeling or thinking without worrying about unintended audiences, and this form of casual, everyday communication paves the way for stronger relationships. Second, the app emphasizes sharing content versus showing content. On other social media sites, sharing and showing information overlap, and it is often unclear where digital ownership lies. With Snapchat, ownership stays within both parties in the case of a screenshot or with neither in the case of auto-deletion.

By studying the value and behavioral implications of Snapchat, the researchers said they expect to open the door to an ephemeral design space that has yet to be explored.

They propose a future application that could be location-based yet ephemeral, for example staying in touch with colleagues during a business conference. These “friends” are situational, but keeping in contact and sharing interactions at the conference is necessary. However, those messages do not need to be permanent since the lifespan of the “friendship” is likely to be short.

Collaborators in the study with Cosley, Bazarova and Xu are doctoral student Pamara Chang and undergraduate psychology student Christopher Welker ’18. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Melissa Osgood