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The ‘Story’ Format Is Here to Stay, on Snapchat or Off of It

Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I avoided Instagram Stories for 11-and-a-half months. I didn’t want to cave.

Stories are, of course, short videos that users could record and upload for their friends’ viewing pleasure, to be played in sequence before disappearing forever after 24 hours. For years, Stories had been more or less the exclusive purview of Snapchat — the social network’s trademark and defining feature — until exactly a year ago today, when Instagram went and introduced its own identical version.

I used both apps, but I was skeptical of Instagram Stories. Snapchat was for the kind of goofy, casual video content that didn’t need to last forever, while Instagram was for posed, memorable snapshots. Snapchat had the puppy filter; Instagram didn’t. Snapchat had cool teens; Instagram had people I went to college with. If it was good enough for the teens, then damn it, Snapchat was good enough for me.

But it wasn’t just Instagram that had stolen Snapchat’s thunder. Stories are now everywhere. Back in March, Facebook (which owns Instagram) also rolled out a Stories feature for its main app, which means that Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat — and, over in Asia, the ever-growing Snapchat clone Snow — are all focusing on fun, goofy, ephemeral video as their output. Everything — as the memes went — was getting Stories. Pregnancy tests. Graphing calculators. Even Owen Wilson’s teeth got Stories.

Why Stories? Part of it is just the rush of attention and novelty that comes with something new. There’s a much lower threshold involved in posting a Story — whip out phone, film dumb five-second video, add flamingo sticker, post, repeat — than there is in, say, editing and posting a full-on YouTube video. You don’t really have to have anything significant to say (not that this has ever stopped anybody from posting videos on YouTube), and it doesn’t take long. And then you get to watch the views tick upward in the form of an organized list of the names of all the people who were interested enough in your life to stop and tap through your Story. Want to be a social-media influencer? No need to create a YouTube account — leverage your already-extant Instagram account and your phone to become an influencer to all of your followers!

But it’s not just that Stories are easy, or new. It’s that they’re different. As a format, they fall somewhere between snaps, which you only send to a specific person and self-delete immediately after they’re viewed, and Instagram photos, which last forever unless you manually delete them. In a world where tweets and Facebook posts can scuttle jobs and attract harassment and abuse, the semi-permanence of a Story is attractive — as is its lack of a public comment section. They let you communicate with your friends what you’re up to, without requiring a perfect filter. And, unless you’re Kim Kardashian beefing with Taylor Swift, once those hours are up, you’ll probably never have to think about that given Story again.

For anxious Instagram photographers, Stories represent a release from pressure. For Facebook itself, Stories are a way to sidestep “context collapse” — the phenomenon where users are forced to juggle broadly different social-media audiences, like co-workers, family, and close friends. Rather than permanent posts with hornets’ nests of comments, Stories are simple, short videos — difficult to share, difficult to hate, and difficult to send to the wrong place. Facebook needs content if it wants to keep selling ads, and after looking long and hard at Snapchat, it’s clearly figured out the kind of content that works.

But it deserves some credit, too. When Instagram first announced Stories, CEO Kevin Systrom was fairly candid about the fact that it was all but a carbon copy of their competition. “This format unlocks a new version of creativity for us,” he told the New York Times. “I think Instagram will be judged by where we go from here, and what we make of it in the future.” Where Instagram went was up — today, users spend more time on Instagram Stories in total than they do on Snapchat. And what it made was Stories. That is: Instagram’s wholesale adoption of Stories as a format has introduced it to a whole new audience — older users not fluent in Snapchat (Instagram boasts that users over 25 spend over 24 minutes per day using it) — and helped transform it into the most popular and successful new form of social-media communication since the tweet.

I understand this. Over the last year, I watched a lot of Stories. Influencers snapping from their perfectly curated L.A. apartments. Lena Dunham being Lena Dunham. They’re fun. I watched as friends started recording dozens of Stories a day, and as people who would never touch Snapchat took up Instagram Stories with gusto. Still, I held out. Why reward the copycats? Two weeks ago, thanks to a combination of a decently convincing friend and several drinks served to me in a coconut, I gave in. I wish I had done it sooner.

The ‘Story’ Format Is Here to Stay, on Snapchat or Off of It