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Now I Get It: Snapchat

David Pogue
Tech Critic

There’s a lot that’s confusing in the world of consumer tech — and there’s no handy handbook to explain it. Welcome to “Now I Get It: Tech,” a new series from David Pogue that explains some of the most baffling mysteries in the tech world.

I don’t use Snapchat. And no wonder: Most people who use it are under 25, and 70 percent of them are female. I’m neither.

At the same time, I’ve been dying to understand Snapchat. I mean, it’s a major cultural force: 200 million people are using it. They send 20,000 photos a second and watch 8 to 10 billion videos a day. The company has yet to turn a profit, but it turned down Facebook’s offer of $3 billion; today, it’s valued at $20 billion.

So I decided to dive in, to talk to people, to pound on this app until I finally understood it. Here, for the benefit of people who don’t understand Snapchat, is what I discovered.

First, you need to know that Snapchat is really three apps crammed in one.

Function 1: Self-destructing messages

Snapchat’s primary (and most famous) feature is that it lets you send self-erasing photos to people. To be more precise, it lets you snap a picture or record a 10-second video, dress it up with funny overlays, type and format a caption, draw on it with your finger if you like, and then send it to specified friends. Once they’ve seen your snap, it disappears forever. Not even the company can get it back.

You can also post snaps publicly to all of your followers on a timeline (here called your Story), à la Facebook or Instagram; the difference is that whatever you post on Snapchat vanishes after 24 hours.

For nonteenagers, the whole concept is a little bizarre. Why would you take photos and videos knowing that they’ll disappear after one viewing? Isn’t the whole purpose of photos and videos to capture cherished memories to be viewed years from now?

Here’s my theory: Deep down, Snapchat’s appeal has to do with teenage insecurity.

Usually, what you post online is there forever. It can come back to haunt you. Everything on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the Web, text messages, email — it will always be there for people to judge you. Your parents might see it. A college admissions officer. A prospective employer.

But Snapchat takes the pressure off. If your snap is goofy or badly framed or embarrassing or incriminating — you don’t care! Post it anyway. No employer or principal or parent will ever find it and disapprove.

Furthermore, there are no comments, no Like buttons, no counts of how many friends you have. No judgment.

All of this gives Snapchat an honesty, an authenticity, an immediacy that the other social media apps lack — and that millennials love.

The screenshot loophole

It is true, by the way, that if someone sends you a snap, you can take a screenshot of it before it disappears, thereby preserving it forever and, presumably, defeating the whole purpose of Snapchat. (To take a screenshot on the iPhone, you press the sleep and Home buttons at the same time; on most Android phones, you press the volume-down and Home buttons.)

The app does notify you when an image has been screenshotted before it disappears. But even that function can be defeated using little hacks that are easy to find online.

So I couldn’t help wondering: Why would anyone risk sending naughty or risky stuff, knowing that it could be captured forever?

One good answer came from a respondent on Quora: “If you don’t trust someone to not take advantage of you, don’t send them that snap; it’s really that easy.”

Another came from a high schooler I interviewed: “Nobody really thinks that the point of Snapchat is to send messages that will delete … unless it’s something secret or embarrassing, I guess. Anyway, I don’t think people care if you screenshot something.”

Either way, the screenshot loophole doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

One more exception: Once a day, you can watch one snap one more time in case you missed it. Incredibly, you can also pay to view snaps again (three replays for a dollar). Mostly, nobody bothers. (“I did not even know that was a feature. Neither did my cousins — noted avid Snapchat users,” said my high school source.)

Function 2: Standard chat program

Many teenagers use Snapchat constantly. They send many, many snaps. They live in the app.

The Snapchat folks have fanned that flame by adding text, voice, and video chat capabilities to the app. You can have a conversation by typing, by talking, or by video calling, and you can slap in cute cartoony “stickers.”

These communications, too, disappear, once both parties have read them.

Function 3: A news app

The third face of Snapchat’s personality is its recent incarnation as a news app. Online publications can post their own stuff for you to read: ESPN, Comedy Central, BuzzFeed, People, National Geographic, CNN, and others are already on board.

What does any of this publishing stuff have to do with chatting with friends or sending self-destructing photos?

Beats the heck out of me, but I’d guess it has something to do with Snapchat trying to make money.

(Most of my teenage sources say they don’t even look at these articles.)

Snapchat the Unknowable

Snapchat wins no awards for ease of use. In fact, it’s incredibly hard to figure out, filled with unlabeled icons and confusingly arrayed screens. Many functions don’t have buttons at all; you get to them by swiping across the screen in various directions [as shown by the arrows here], which is something you kind of have to stumble on.

(Maybe this, too, is part of the appeal to teenagers. Every generation of teens has its secret, proprietary culture — slang, music, rituals — deliberately designed to shut out or mystify their parents. Maybe mastering Snapchat’s bizarre layout makes its fans feel like insiders in an exclusive club.)

Over time, Snapchat has become burdened by an almost absurd assortment of features. My impression is that it’s popular despite this feature-itis, not because of it.

How to use Snapchat

All that said, here’s a quick guide to get you started:

Functions 2 and 3 (chatting and reading articles) are relatively easy. To read the articles posted by media organizations, tap the lower-right button (labeled Discover in the right-hand screenshot above) to see the names of magazines and websites, and tap your way in to start reading.

For chat, you swipe to the right from the camera screen to see your list of contacts, and then tap one to start typing or calling.

That leaves us with the Big One, the primary Snapchat feature, the really fun one: Sending self-deleting photos and videos.

When you first open the app, its camera screen appears. It works just like your phone’s regular camera app. Tap the upper-right camera button to use the phone’s front-facing camera to take a selfie (which is usually the point). Touch the big round shutter button to take the photo. (Or hold it down for up to 10 seconds to record a video.)

All Snapchat photos and videos are vertical, by the way; nobody turns the phone 90 degrees to take or view them in landscape mode.

Once you’ve snapped a shot, the real fun begins: Dressing it up.

Apply a filter: Swipe horizontally across your photo to apply a filter — to add a blue or green tint to the whole thing, for example. If you keep swiping, you’ll see some really interesting ones: One adds the name of your city with a cool graphic treatment, another stamps the current time or temperature, yet another stamps your current speed in miles per hour (best if you’re not doing the driving).

Stamp some stickers: At the top of the screen, the tilted square icon shown here [below, left] opens a page of emoji icons. Tap to stamp one on your photo. At that point, you can drag the “sticker” around to move it, or pinch/spread with two fingers to enlarge it or shrink it.

Type some text: When you tap the T button at the top right of your photo screen, the keyboard opens [below, left]. Type a caption and then Done. Now you can drag with your finger to slide the caption up or down the photo.

Or maybe you’d prefer giant lettering. To do that, tap the T to make the text huge [below, middle]. Tap a third time to center the text. Once it’s huge, tap the text itself to open a page with a color slider, so you can change the color [right].

Draw on the photo: Tap the pencil icon to draw or write on the shot with your finger. Once again, a slider appears so you can specify the color.

Put on a virtual mask: You’d never in a million years stumble onto this feature without being told about it, but it’s hilarious and fun: Snapchat can turn you into a gorilla or a Viking or a bobblehead, either as a still or a video, by superimposing an animated mask or costume on your live image.

To see these software “masks” (or Lenses, as Snapchat calls them), the trick is to hold your finger down on your own face in the live camera view before taking the photo. After a moment, a grid out of a sci-fi movie appears on your face, and icons for virtual masks fill the bottom of the screen. Tap one to try it out. (They change all the time, for variety.) Some come with instructions, like Open your mouth, which triggers a funny animation.

When you’ve got a look you like, snap it as a photo or video just as you normally would, by touching or holding your finger down on the round button on the screen. (Snapchat charges $1 apiece to install new Lenses of this type.)

(I would have written that these virtual masks are so witty, new, and interesting that it’s worth installing Snapchat just to try them out — except that MSQRD is a free app that does exactly the same thing, with even better animations and smarts, and without all the extra clutter of Snapchat. If you have a child and an upcoming car ride, you must download MSQRD.)

Finally, you’re ready to post your masterpiece. For this, you use the icons at the bottom of the screen:

  • Seconds: The lower-left icon specifies how many seconds your recipients will have to view your masterpiece before it disappears. (They’ll see a countdown.)
  • Save: Your friends aren’t supposed to keep a copy of your photo, but it’s OK for you to keep one. Tap Save to preserve it in your phone’s Photos collection.
  • Post to your Story: Again, Story is Snapchat’s name for your timeline or newsfeed. It’s a way for you to make your snaps viewable to your entire social circle (which you specify in Settings) — for 24 hours.
  • Choose recipients. When everything’s ready to go, tap here to view your friends list, so you can specify who gets your masterpiece.

Now you get it?

As you now know, the first Snapchat mystery — How do you use it? — is easily solved, once you have a cheat sheet.

As for the second mystery — Why do you use it? — it helps to be a teenager. But Snapchat also rocketed up the ranks because of its convenience, silliness and fun, immediacy — and above all, because whatever you do with it, you won’t someday regret it.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes nontoxic comments in the Comments below.