What’s (importantly) different about Snapchat

By Anne Collier

It’s not what you might think – or what you might’ve read in the news. What makes Snapchat stand out in the crowd of social media apps, in fact what makes it “matter,” as social media researcher danah boyd put it, “has to do with how it treats attention.” Snapchat users don’t just swipe through a gazillion photos in a stream or album. The app doesn’t work that way. They actually pause and pay attention, danah notes.

“I watch teens choose not to open a Snap the moment they get it because they want to wait for the moment when they can appreciate whatever is behind that closed door,” danah continues. “And when they do, I watch them tune out everything else and just concentrate on what’s in front of them. Rather than serving as yet-another distraction, Snapchat invites focus.”

I’ve noticed this with my university student son (who was fine with me following him in Snapchat): care goes into snapping, sharing and viewing along a full spectrum of intention, from playful to thoughtful. The intention and attention danah’s talking about point to the behaviors and social norms that develop in and around every social app and service, and it’s fun for parents to find out what they are, if we can. I find teens are usually at least mildly interested when we’re interested, and often willing to think out loud (on occasion) about how those work.

For example, you might ask what apps “kids at your school” use most or even what the thinking is about using them to share risky or mean stuff, and take it from there – seeing what your child thinks about those activities along the way. Be honest that the conversation is not about prying or monitoring; it’s about learning (if it isn’t about learning, you won’t probably won’t learn much). Talking about the norms around a social media service can help grow the intention or mindfulness a user brings to it – and to others in it.

Mindfulness, norms as safety factors

Mindfulness and positive social norms increase social and emotional safety in social, user-driven media environments just as much as they do in the social settings offline. But they’re just two of the factors influencing how positive or negative people’s experiences are in Snapchat or any other social media service. Here are the important ones:

  • The properties or conditions of the app itself (created by its developers), e.g. the ephemeral or disappearing nature of a snap in Snapchat (10 sec. max)
  • The safety infrastructure – e.g., terms of use, whether there are community moderators watching over that digital space and whether there’s a responsive abuse reporting system
  • Besides the general social norms of that space, the norms of a particular peer group or social circle with which a person’s using it
  • What each user brings to the experience (kind of the way a film isn’t experienced in the exact same way by all of its viewers – the experience is partly the film and partly who the viewer is and what s/he brings to it at that point in his or her own experience).
  • External support users have – parents, friends, counselors, helplines, etc.
  • The policies and laws in offline life that govern users as well as the social media services they use.

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