Why Snapchat is Valuable: It’s All About Attention

Most people who encounter a link to this post will never read beyond this paragraph. Heck, most people who encountered a link to this post didn’t click on the link to begin with. They simply saw the headline, took note that someone over 30 thinks that maybe Snapchat is important, and moved onto the next item in their Facebook/Twitter/RSS/you-name-it stream of media. And even if they did read it, I’ll never know it because they won’t comment or retweet or favorite this in any way.

We’ve all gotten used to wading in streams of social media content. Open up Instagram or Secret on your phone and you’ll flick on through the posts in your stream, looking for a piece of content that’ll catch your eye. Maybe you don’t even bother looking at the raw stream on Twitter. You don’t have to because countless curatorial services like digg are available to tell you what was most important in your network. Facebook doesn’t even bother letting you see your raw stream; their algorithms determine what you get access to in the first place (unless, of course, someone pays to make sure their friends see their content).

Snapchat offers a different proposition. Everyone gets hung up on how the disappearance of images may (or may not) afford a new kind of privacy. Adults fret about how teens might be using this affordance to share inappropriate (read: sexy) pictures, projecting their own bad habits onto youth. But this is isn’t what makes Snapchat utterly intriguing. What makes Snapchat matter has to do with how it treats attention.

When someone sends you an image/video via Snapchat, they choose how long you get to view the image/video. The underlying message is simple: You’ve got 7 seconds. PAY ATTENTION. And when people do choose to open a Snap, they actually stop what they’re doing and look.

In a digital world where everyone’s flicking through headshots, images, and text without processing any of it, Snapchat asks you to stand still and pay attention to the gift that someone in your network just gave you. As a result, 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. 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.

Furthermore, in an ecosystem where people “favorite” or “like” content that is inherently unlikeable just to acknowledge that they’ve consumed it, Snapchat simply notifies the creator when the receiver opens it up. This is such a subtle but beautiful way of embedding recognition into the system. Sometimes, a direct response is necessary. Sometimes, we need nothing more than a simple nod, a way of signaling acknowledgement. And that’s precisely why the small little “opened” note will bring a smile to someone’s face even if the recipient never said a word.

Snapchat is a reminder that constraints have a social purpose, that there is beauty in simplicity, and that the ephemeral is valuable. There aren’t many services out there that fundamentally question the default logic of social media and, for that, I think that we all need to pay attention to and acknowledge Snapchat’s moves in this ecosystem.

(This post was originally published on LinkedIn. More comments can be found there.)

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5 thoughts on “Why Snapchat is Valuable: It’s All About Attention

  1. Vanessa Blaylock

    Exactly! I’m a big fan of Joseph Cornell’s box constructions. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether it’s possible to create a Cornell Box in cyberspace. I’ve come to think of his Boxes as “Serendipity & Juxtaposition” in a Box. As far as serendipity & juxtaposition go, The Net is even more Cornell than Cornell. But Cornell’s boxes represent a bounded space which focuses your experience. For all the power of The Net, it seems to forever dissipate energy into exponential possibilities. These days I don’t just have a dozen tabs open, I have a dozen tabs open on each of a half dozen web browsers.

    Attention, focus, presence, engagement, immersion, are essential qualities of powerful, compelling experience. Yet they’re hard to achieve in a world of click, click, click, next, next, next. No wonder so many marketing types jumped into the comments on your LinkedIn post. It sort of saddened me that they so quickly turned your insight on cyberculture into a new marketing angle. But whether it’s commerce or culture, attention, almost more than time, is the commodity that there’s never enough of.

    I love the Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s retelling of Moses and the burning bush. Kushner asks “why a burning bush?” Why such a “cheap trick?” You’re God after all! Why not materialize the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus while standing on the wing of a hovering 747 jumbo jet? Wouldn’t that be a better way to get Moses attention? Kushner notes that it takes a piece of wood about 7 minutes to fully combust. Therefore when you see a burning bush, you have to watch it for at least 7 minutes to know if you’re looking a a divine presence, or just a burning bush. Finally he concludes that God wasn’t trying to get Moses’ attention, he was trying to see if Moses was paying attention.

    Ephemeral Messaging like Snapchat does an impressive job of getting attention. It gives kids today a little bit of the less public communication that kids of past generations may have had. IDK if EM can build community though. My own interest is in creative / culture spaces where colleagues pay at least enough attention to have a meaningful dialog and collaborate on projects. In MOOCs, Facebook Groups, and elsewhere I’ve seen tremendous desire for this, yet getting past the lure of “next” is a difficult distraction.

  2. Mennoknight

    When very liberal organizations such as CBC’s the Doc Zone’s Documentory “Sexed Up” on the Sexualization of teens are telling us to do pretty much the opposite of what you are telling us to do what do we do with your advice?
    For me I simply throw it out and say that this is pretty much the worst advice I have seen in years.
    I plan to use your articles as a teaching tool in the future on what not to do.

  3. Paul Wood

    After reading your post, I sat back and thought for a moment. The first image that came to mind was the one of the lady with the Grand Canyon behind her and she is looking at her phone screen. Focus, attention and then for my money reflection are all so very important. To look around at the folks on their phones, tablets, etc while sitting face to face with others at the table is amazing to me. I think our children are looking for that opportunity to be recognized, paid attention to in some form or fashion and while sometimes it is not the best use of text, video, etc., it still boils down to “I am here.”

    I appreciate the different perspective on this.


  4. Jeff Noh

    Great points. “We’ve all gotten used to wading in streams of social media content.” As you’ve insightfully picked out, Snapchat’s real staying power is its treatment of attention.

    On my network, there are a lot of people and a lot of posts, so much so that it’s hard to grab the attention of the people I’d like to. Because there a lot of people, I also tend to post things that I’m comfortable with many people knowing and finding relevant. This is not to say that these services will go out of fashion anytime soon, but that I and IMO many people are looking for services that empower us to cut through all that noise to reach the people that we’d like to reach directly.

    This is the reason for the growth of text messaging services and recently ephemerality services.

    Snapchat nailed its treatment of attention – the person selection coupled with the push notification mechanism empower “focus”ed interactions between friends.

    “Snapchat asks you to stand still and pay attention to the gift that someone in your network just gave you” – this reinforces the “focus”, however I’d argue that it’s icing on the cake.

  5. Zach Lonsinger

    Great post. I was pointed to your blog by my professor, and then I found this article. I think you raise some great points on the value of Snapchat. As a user of many social networks, including Snapchat, I can definitely see Snapchat rising to the ranks of great social media apps. As a graduate student studying Educational Technology by day, and a youth leader by night of over 150 teenagers, I am very immersed in social media, especially Snapchat. I would like to see Snapchat be used in an educational setting. I think it would provide unique angels to education and capture the attention of young people. What if we could send students words of the day, or “10-second writing assignments”. Give them a phrase that they only see for 10 or 5 seconds, and have them write a short creative paper. Why not bring what teenagers are using outside-of-school and incorporate it with in-school learning?

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