The gospel of Snapchat

Millennial Meltdown

Sometimes I wonder why Snapchat’s application icon is a ghost.

It feels safe to assume it was inspired by the pioneering concept of Snapchat in its original incarnation: Friends can share photos that are only viewable for between one to 10 seconds — I myself am partial to a liberal but not debasing seven-second average. Then they’re lost in the ether, or just screenshotted, printed and disseminated on Sproul Plaza. Kind of like — here you can almost hear tails wagging in some Silicon Valley board room — a ghost.

It felt, at least initially, like a patchwork of all the other big social media jocks stitched together. The taste of Facebook’s brand of social networking. The rough logistics of texting. The image emphasis of Instagram. The concision of Twitter. The sexual possibilities of Skype. And yet none of their monetary potential or ambition.

It’s interesting then, that in almost no time at all — and in fairly explicit defiance of market share, stock prices, notions of pop culture and popular belief — Snapchat has come not only to live symbiotically with its social-media ancestors as something of an equal, but it has also transformed itself to what I believe to be the preeminent social media platform and the one most emblematic of the generation using it.

But I’m still hung up on the Snapchat icon.

I’m not sure I’m satisfied with my initial explanation. I think the little yellow ghost may, even accidentally, have come to represent something much bigger and much more ironic.

I’m no ghost expert. Nor do I imagine, based on the drawing of the ghost on the application icon, is Snapchat. But I would hazard to guess that ghosts are either invisible or, on the whole, fairly inconspicuous — although I look forward to an impassioned letter to the editor in Monday’s paper by a ghost offended by my prejudice and insensitivity.

So the great irony of Snapchat’s icon, really, is how unphantom-like Snapchat has allowed millennials to be. So many doomsday proclaimers and demagogues have posited maledictions against Facebook and Twitter for eroding the last vestiges of privacy and anonymity. But Snapchat took the mantle previous social media players left for it, and it ran with it. Whoever lobbied to have the millennial generation rechristened as the “Facebook Generation” has clearly yet to download the true prophet — and profit — of the millennials.

It’s due in large part to the Snapchat story. I’m assuming, perhaps ill-advisedly, that the vast majority of readers of this column are millennials and that most of you probably just added a Snapchat story of your Chipotle steak bowl, so I’ll spare you a lengthy, descriptive paragraph. If you’re not a millennial, a Google search is in order.

Although sort of at odds with the initial thesis of Snapchat, the Snapchat story is also an unadulterated masterstroke. It added a layer of connection to the social media sphere that was unlike anything before it. If you participate, you can see the goings-on of everyone you know. You know their thoughts. You see their choices, their activities, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and who they’re doing it with. It has, in effect, made day-to-day life a fundamentally shared experience, making social and inherently visual that which has historically been either completely private or otherwise just verbal.

To an 80-year-old who will probably never participate in social media or understand media in the context through which young people interact, the Snapchat story must, no doubt, inspire a great deal of anxiety and incredulity. And he or she has a point. Is nothing sacred? Isn’t there a beauty in having experiences that you share just with yourself and your physical companions — not with the entire universe? And could we be any more conceited, thinking that every small detail of our day is must-see content for the world?

But the beauty of Snapchat and the reason it will, through the lens of history, be regarded as the hallmark of the millennial anthropology is its remarkable potential to consociate.

We can now, literally, see the world through other people’s eyes. What once existed only in the form of verbal synopsis of our day’s events now exists as images, moving or otherwise, available instantly every day. Our stories, our memories and everything about our journey through life — some of it benign, some of it hilarious and some of it worth the weight of its 10 seconds in gold — can now be shared. We can experience the lives of hundreds, as well as chronicle our own, through one application for which its initial utility may or may not have been to facilitate the transmission of genitalia from one participant to a willing or unwilling other.

The little white ghost in the yellow square, whoever he is and whatever he means, has earned a stranglehold on the social media universe and opened the door to a new template for communication. Maybe it’s a knowledge overload. Maybe there will come a time when all this sharing will reach a ne plus ultra, proving our grandparents right.

But for the moment, we’re in a pretty spectacular moment where all of our stories have a visual place to occupy and to be shared. It’s the embodiment of the millennial, really. We have thoughts, we have ideas, we have faces that look best in Mayfair or Walden, and we want everyone to know it.

That’s why Snapchat is our gospel, the Snapchat story our scripture and unlimited dick pics God’s will.

Jacob Leonard writes the Thursday column on the plight of the young. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @leonardjp.