By Larry Magid
Snapchat’s new “memories” feature, along with new features at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, represent a turning point for social networking.
Snapchat, which began life as a disappearing photo app that only allowed people to hang onto pictures for 10 seconds after they were first viewed, now allows you not only to save your “snaps” (photos or videos and accompanying text) but to share them, potentially forever.
It’s a feature you have to enable each time you use it. Snapchat remains “delete by default,” so its basic value proposition as an ephemeral service remains for those who want it, but it now allows you to selectively save images on Snapchat’s servers to access anytime from any compatible device.
The company put a lot of thought into giving users control over their privacy and actually requires a couple of steps before an image can be saved on the company’s servers — plus one more step if you want to share it with others. Additionally, there is a “for my eyes only” option that requires a pin code if you want to see an image — even on your own phone — for content that might be a tad inappropriate for your kids or parents should they get hold of your device.
When you establish the code, Snapchat reminds you that if you forget your code, the company won’t be able to recover your code or your Snaps. “Won’t” actually means “can’t,” because these images are encrypted, just as with data stored on the iPhone, in WhatsApp and other encrypted devices and services that even the companies can’t access. Though it may not be entirely impossible, as the FBI proved when, with help from a third party, it was able to unlock the encrypted iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.
Snapchat’s transition to an optional storage and sharing service has been gradual. It has, for some time, allowed users to save Snaps to their own camera roll, but these were only stored locally on your phone. While there are ways to share virtually anything on your phone, Snapchat itself didn’t offer any cloud storage or retrieval from its own servers, as do most other social networking services.
In 2013, Snapchat introduced “Stories,” which allowed users to congregate individual photos and videos into a single story that could be viewed for up to 24 hours by anyone who it you shared it with.
Snapchat’s feature evolution — one could call it “maturation,” corresponds with a maturation of its user base, as well.
For years, Snapchat was the service that kids loved and parents feared. Kids didn’t just love it because its disappearing feature made it harder for parents to spy on them but because — as a young man explained to me — there is something very cool about living in the moment. Receiving a Snap is like having been there for a fantastic live performance or an amazing sports play.
Its other advantage, especially for impulsive teens, is that — by default, at least — there is no “permanent record.” Adults have been telling kids for years to be careful what they post online because it can hang around forever and haunt them when they apply for college, try to get a job or appeal to a potential mate.
Sure, there have always been ways to capture Snapchat screens — sometimes even by photographing them from another phone — but the norm was for pictures and videos to disappear. And it’s worth repeating that that’s still the default.
The announcement of the Memories feature came just after comScore reported that Snapchat is “breaking into the mainstream.” ComScore estimates that about 38 percent of U.S. smartphone users age 25 to 34 are on the service, along with 14 percent of people 35 and older.
While older users may also like the service’s disappearing act, I’m guessing that a lot of adults will also appreciate the ability to save and selectively share memories. That’s certainly the case on Facebook, once the sole province of college and high school students but now populated by people of all ages, including plenty of senior citizens.
Snapchat isn’t the only service trying out new ways to display and hold onto information. Facebook, for example, recently rolled out live video. Although you can archive live videos, their unique value proposition is that they are live and “in the moment.” Tweets, as politicians have discovered, can stick around forever, but Twitter’s main value is its instantaneity. I rarely look at tweets that are more than a few minutes old.
Instagram recently changed its algorithms to change the order of posts so you’re more likely to see missives from people you interact with frequently.
Facebook just tweaked its newsfeed to show more posts from close friends and family based on the observation that you’re more likely to interact with people you’re close to.
And Twitter is constantly evolving from its debut as a place to type up to 140 characters of text to a way of sharing photos and videos. Even though they’re sticking to that 140-character limit (for now), they’re no longer counting replies, links or media attachments toward that limit.
All of these changes can be disconcerting to users, who constantly have to get used to new ways of viewing or sending information, but — when done well — the tweaks keep these products fresh and relevant.