In mid-2011 Snapchat was released by three then-students at Stanford University and quickly rose to prominence as the foremost ephemeral photo-sharing app for drawing rudimentary penis doodles on the faces of your friends and/or their penises. Four years, a few instructive security issues, and a $16 billion valuation later, Snapchat is no longer simply a convenient reference for “things teens do.” It’s 2015, and now Snapchat is for Moms.
I had a guy friend put this to me a few months ago (“My mom friends all snap me baby photos. Moms LOVE Snapchat! Write about it! It’s a thing!”), but I wasn’t sure I believed him. Sure, eventually millennials will have children, and eventually teens grow up, and if investors keep pouring money into the app it will continue to exist. But Snapchat? “Stop,” I told him. “No.” Yes! He pressed on, saying it was great, actually, because it was inherently sort-of-private, there was no archive, no trolls; the audience is only those you send it to, and best of all, there was no pressure to comment. No performance, sincere or not! How many different variations on “He’s so cute!” are there, really? This I understood.
Then, as if on cue, I started seeing Snapchat pop up on lifestyle blogs, especially ones with babies. In her blog post reporting on her family’s Fourth of July celebration, lifestyle blogger Naomi Davis, a.k.a. Love Taza, casually slips in a shout-out on her Instagram feed (cross-stream betrayal!): “[T]here's more from our day over on my snapchat (WHAT), which I'm trying out for a little while although I'm still not totally sold on it all.” She then adds various emoji — monkey covering eyes, old lady, despair face — to convey a cheery, self-aware horror. Other bloggers followed suit. “There is so much I do not understand. It makes me feel so old,” writes Jen Lula of Jen Loves Kev (mother of two, third on the way). “Am I crazy? I don’t know yet? I can barely figure it out BUT I am kind of loving it.” Hospice nurse, blogger, and mom to five kids Rachael Kincaid echoed the sentiment in a photo caption: “I held off for the longest and now I'm utterly confused but I mean, I see some serious potential.”
Sharing photos of your children with interested parties (so, for people who aren’t mommy bloggers, friends and family) seems like exactly the kind of ridiculous problem an app should have solved by now. But I still haven’t found a satisfactory strategy, something that would be unannoying (to follower and parent both) as well as relatively safe (which for many people means private). Do I let my mom follow me on Instagram and make weird comments? (Yes, and live to regret it.) Do I post to Facebook even though I hate it? (No.) Do I try to take a few minutes each day and text immediate family a little update? (Too ambitious, sadly.)
Snapchat — private, ephemeral, and direct — solves a lot of this. When you get a snap you feel like it’s sent only to you, even though it might have been effectively BCC'ed to 50 people. There are no comments. The photo disappears in a matter of seconds, though as the sender you can toggle settings. It’s easy to make short videos of your day, complete with the filters and captions we’ve come to expect. It’s perfect for low-pressure updates, which is exactly what people are interested in.
So now what? Add another app to my life? Ask my father-in-law to download Snapchat? I’m not sure we’re there yet — I’m sure not — but will we get there?
When considering the inflection point of most internet platforms, I like to keep in mind the truism Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones imparted to her boyfriend Smith Jerrod after his big underwear modeling debut: “First the gays, then the girls, then the industry!” And after the industry? The Moms. Moms, by start-up standards, are the biggest coup; it’s the sign you’ve gone mainstream (“sold out” may be another way to put it but when you’ve raised close to a billion dollars from investors, you’d better leave your preciousness at the door). Mom content means you’re no longer catering to teens and early adopters and gay teen early adopters. Moms mean you’ve made it.
I joined Snapchat the first time in late 2012, when I was neither a teen nor yet a mom. I wouldn’t say I was particularly dedicated to the form, but I do have fond memories of myself with elaborate beards and eyebrows drawn on, MS Paint–style. More crude than dirty, it felt stupid and fun. It felt like a direct reaction to the fussiness and self-presentation of Instagram, which had gained popularity the year before. Snapchat was like passing funny, sometimes dirty notes back and forth in class. It didn’t add up to anything, but it was hilarious while it lasted. For me, that was a few months, or until I needed to free up storage space on my phone.
Rachael Kincaid shared my sense of Snapchat’s liberating offhandedness.“Things don’t need a lot of context or pretense,” she told me. “It’s so freeing. I also live with a constant sense that I’m about to make a huge fool of myself or fail at something, and being on Snapchat has actually helped me address that head-on. It’s a neat, carefree place to create content without the need to ask yourself how it fits in with your brand, or what your endgame is.”
Like me, she’d assumed it was all teens and dick pix, but unlike me, had kept her distance. “Then I literally woke up one day after spending a week [chaperoning] teenagers at camp and thought, Snapchat doesn’t have to be a naughty place. We can take it back.” Kincaid regularly uses one of Snapchat’s new features called Stories, which lets you stitch together a series of short clips into a 140-second video about your day. Watching these videos, I was struck by how, well, boring they were. Here she was sitting on a bench with an iced coffee, listening to the radio driving to work, cooking dinner, narrating various scenes with her rowdy family behind her in a parking garage, or waiting to be seated at a restaurant. It was interesting to see at first, but after a while I found myself skipping around, not opening them, feeling like some sort of aspirational bubble had been popped. Kincaid, though, seemed like she was having fun. It seemed sincere, fun, low-key; like if I knew her personally, I’d send her a quick reply, or in Snapchat parlance, “a snapback.”
After talking to Kinkaid, I re-downloaded the app, and received a litany of snaps from my cousin Mary Rose — a recent college grad who was out with her friends that night. There were no doodles, the captions weren’t funny; it was straightforward documentation and similarly boring despite the fact that I knew her IRL. It seemed to be something less like the bragging or memory-preserving or conversation of other platforms and more like, Here I am. Here’s who I’m with. We’re still out. Here we are. Here we are. Here we are. It was a recurring ping. “I exist,” over and over, without the accumulation of an archive — and without the archive’s attendant potential for shame (or self-awareness?). It struck me as more compulsive dispatch than attempt at connection.
After fumbling my way to the page for in-app chat, I sent my cousin a note. She knew young parents — did she ever get baby snaps? She responded immediately, in all caps, “YES I GET BABY PHOTOS ALL THE TIME,” then sent a series of hahahahaha's. “Usually the ones of them asleep that say ‘milk drunk.’”
I thought of Mary Rose’s young friends experiencing that wave of relief and urge to reach out — I exist — as soon as their babies go to sleep. They can’t go anywhere. They don’t know what to say. Ping. I thought of moments in the past year or so of my life, feeling isolated and exhausted during those early days with an infant. There were times where I would have the urge to tweet something funny or ridiculous, to remind myself and others that I was still here, but had nothing to offer. I imagined taking a photo of the wall, adding the caption, “Hi, I’m tired.” This would not be out of place on Snapchat.
As for me, I’ve now had Snapchat on my phone for a few weeks and have sent only two snaps — neither of my child, both pretty boring. Maybe without the artifice of performance, of being interesting, Snapchat is social media distilled to its essence: “Hello, I am another human distracting myself from the void, please snap back.” Part of me suspects I’ll get sucked back in eventually, but for now, I’m deleting it. I need the room on my phone to take more pictures of my kid.