Snapchat: the rise of the disappearing social network

Its profile is set to soar in 2016, but what is the photo and video-sharing app all about?

In the 1985 film Back to the Future, the 'future' saw us in a world with hoverboards and flying cars but nobody imagined we'd be using smartphones to shop, read, look for love, order takeaways and taxis, and pretty much live our lives online through personal networking apps.

But the global march of social networking appears unstoppable. When Facebook was launched a decade ago, it was available only to students at certain universities; flash forward to today, and 65 per cent of the United States' population has a Facebook account. Figures released by Ipsos MRBI last week indicate that 63 per cent of Irish people have signed up to the site, and more than two thirds of those use it daily.

While Facebook is still the most-used social network, other apps and websites have Irish people glued to their screens. Twitter lets you follow people that interest you, Instagram is for pretty pictures and Pinterest is for decorating or wedding inspiration. But there's another app that has taken hold of Irish users in the past few months, and that's Snapchat. The photograph and video sharing app has been around since 2011, created by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown when they were Stanford University students, but the app had something of a boom in 2015.

Most social networking apps that don't take off quickly tend to fall by the wayside, however Snapchat quietly held its own for a few years before exploding in the latter half of 2015. Earlier this month, The White House signed up – perhaps inspired by Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton's clever use of the app – and a new poll by Ipsos MRBI shows that 25 per cent of the Irish population now have a Snapchat account, with 65 per cent of those using it every day.


Yet while one in four Irish adults are using the app, many have never heard of it. So what is Snapchat and why is it gaining such ground here?

The premise is simple enough – Snapchat’s unique selling point is that its content is short-lived and then disappears. Users can send private messages to contacts, or add photos and short videos to a “story” that last for 24 hours. You can add various filters, some animated lenses and some text, but space is limited and unlike other social sites such as Instagram, where it’s about posting a perfected image on a quest for “likes”, images are more low key.

When Snapchat was first launched, it was primarily used by teens who cottoned on to its efficacy for sending disappearing "sexts". Thus the app had a less-than-desirable reputation with parents frantically deleting it from their kids' phones. But users, perhaps enticed by high-profile and prolific Snappers such as Rihanna and Kylie Jenner, started turning to the app in drovers and in May 2015, co-creator Evan Spiegel said they had amassed some 100 million daily users worldwide.

It is particularly popular with foodies and beauty aficionados who use the short, snappy videos to take followers through a tutorial or recipe, but it’s not just amateurs and bloggers – professionals such as Irish cook Donal Skehan and big beauty brands such as NARS are also Snapping away.

"The platform experienced a real explosion in 2015," says Sean Earley, the creative director of digital agency New Slang. "This was thanks in part to the innovations that came during the year – featured stories, lenses to make Snaps more fun and interactive and the rise of Snapchat celebrities who figured out how to grow audiences and push pure personality."

However because there’s no search function you need to know who to follow, so Snappers are cleverly using other forms of social media to promote their username.

PR professional James Kavanagh (26) from Cabra in Dublin has become something of a star on the app in the past six months, and thinks that 2015 was simply the incubation period for Snapchat – according to him, 2016 is the year that people around the world will join in droves.

“Snapchat was popular in my circles a couple of years ago, but I never bit. I just didn’t see the point of putting things up that disappeared. But then about six months ago everyone seemed to be using it. I gave it a whirl and now the very thing that put me off it in the first place is what keeps me hooked – it’s probably the only place in internet land where things actually disappear.”

About 15,000 people watch Kavanagh's daily snaps, and his content is mainly humour-based. He frightens his boyfriend William on camera and addresses his followers as his comedy alter-ego Veronica Sachs, as well as parodying beauty bloggers with faux tutorials. However users that come for the comedy stick around for the sweet, personal insights in to his life with family and friends, and Kavanagh believes it is our fundamental nosiness as a nation that makes the app appealing here.

“Snapchat gives you a unique viewing platform into someone’s life; it’s the perfect formula for people who love watching people. It’s so raw and unfiltered; with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, there are layers of production, whereas with Snapchat, it literally feels as if you’re a fly on the wall in someone’s world. It’s basically like a TV station with only reality TV shows playing.”

Anyone that is social media savvy knows that there is money to be made from networking online; according to Jezebel, a sponsored post on Instagram from a blogger or reality TV celebrity can cost a brand between $5,000 and $25,000 in the US.

However, Snapchat may just be the exception. Spiegel insists that Snapchat is “for people, not for brands”, and Earley says it is not clear if Snapchat will be beneficial to Irish companies already doing well on other networks.

"I've seen lots of brands starting a Snapchat because they feel they have to have one, but examples of brands using it really well are rare in Ireland. Boring accounts won't survive on the platform which is quite insular – people are following their mates largely."

Earley says that if the content is compelling enough, Snapchat can be powerful but the downside is the app’s lack of ability to measure analytics. “It proves impossible when trying to put some rationale behind investment on the platform. But maybe the fact that it appears to be rejecting advertising money is what makes Snapchat continue to be cool to users.”

Where Snapchat does seem to excel is in terms of video blogging – personality-driven Snaps that engage users on a relatable level. "Snapchat poses a real threat to YouTube in terms of dethroning the video site, because it's so suitable for on-the-go micro-vlogging," says Earley.

However, for its survival, it is important for the platform to attract the over-35 market. The creators are hoping that older people will sign up to stay in touch with (or keep an eye on) their children and younger family members. And it is this older market that is most attractive to advertisers. So prepare to see more of the little ghost icon that could; if current trends continue, it could become the app to beat.

A quick guide to Snapchat  

What is snapchat?
An app available on smartphones (iPhone and Android) that allows users to share short pictures and video messages with friends and followers. You can send disappearing direct messages straight to another user, or add media to your "story", where it lives for 24 hours.

How do you get started?
Download the app and create an account. You can then add contacts from your phone, or add others by their username. You do this by tapping the ghost icon at the top of the screen.  You can also add users nearby if they've allowed Snapchat to access their location. There's no search or discover function though - hence the need to know someone's username.

How do you send photos and videos? Once you've set up your account and found people to follow, you can take a picture or video within the app and either send it to someone or add it to your story. You can embellish it with text, emojis and filters before posting - swipe the image side to side to see how you can vary your post.

What else do I need to know?
You can use Snapchat to send pictures or videos up to 10 seconds in length directly to other users. Once they view your snap, it disappears, never to be seen again. Or you can add the photo or video to your story, so anyone that follows you can see your snaps for 24 hours.

What is my "story"?
Your story is your account home screen. Your public photos and videos appear here. When someone follows you, they appear on their timeline for 24 hours. This might just be one snap, or a series you've added to over the course of the day. Some stories are several minutes long, others just several seconds.