Snapchat isn’t just for sexting, selfies and funny pictures anymore. This month, the fast-growing messaging service became a way for the public to gain a glimpse into one of the world’s oldest religious traditions and to see the holiest place in Islam — one that's typically off-limits to non-Muslims.
In the past 10 days, people around the world have sent more than 1.5 million tweets using the #mecca_live hashtag, many of them urging Snapchat to feature Muslims' pilgrimage to Mecca during Ramadan as one of its Live stories.
The plea worked. On Laylat al-Qadr, the holiest day of Ramadan, Snapchat opened Mecca to the world, curating its users' photos and videos into a piece of content that's attracted a lot of applause from around the Internet.
And Saudi Arabia, a country known for tightly controlling domestic media content and for trying to limit the influence of new media, doesn't seem to be upset.
To create its Mecca Live story, Snapchat, which didn't respond to a request for an interview, curated videos and photos from users who had gathered in Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah, a pilgrimage to Mecca typically undertaken during Ramadan.
The Mecca Live feature is among the latest examples of Snapchat's evolution since its launch in September 2011. Once considered a tool for sexting or for communication among teens feeling entirely too exposed by a culture of sharing spurred by social media, Snapchat is looking more and more like a media company.
In January, Snapchat partnered with almost a dozen major media outlets (including Yahoo) to launch Discover, a collection of video content designed specifically for Snapchat users. It later hired former CNN correspondent Peter Hamby to lead news operations and shape its coverage of live events.
Snapchat, which allows users to share visual messages that expire among groups, began covering live events last August when it documented Electric Daisy Carnival, a popular multiday electronica dance party held in cities around the world. It requires users snapping live events to activate location services to verify they are where they claim to be.
So far this year, Snapchat's live coverage has included HIllary Clinton and Jeb Bush's campaign announcements and the lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. Snapchat also created stories aimed at helping the world better understand the financial crisis in Greece and the situation in the West Bank.
In case you missed the Mecca Live story, here's what is reported to be a version of the story that's been uploaded to Facebook and viewed nearly 1.6 million times.
Correction: This article originally misidentified the pilgrimage being documented by Snapchat. The pilgrimage is known as Umrah. Hajj is a pilgrimage that occurs at a different time during the lunar calendar.