Before Snapchat became the nearly universal communication platform for digital natives, it was an app which promised friends—but more often lovers—a seemingly private environment in which they could communicate intimately. In more crude terms, sexting. The allure of the app was its disappearing messages feature, which ensured that any photo would be irretrievable after it was viewed. And, while it offered no protection against screenshotting, Snapchat would alert the sender if a screenshot was taken of their message. At its beginning, privacy was the main draw of Snapchat. Today, however, Snapchat has evolved into a nearly ubiquitous social platform with over 158 million daily users who use the app for much more than sexting. And, although features such as "stories," live video chatting, and special filters have enhanced Snapchat’s user experience, disappearing messages—and the sense of privacy they provide—remain at the core of the platform.

Unlike other social platforms, in which the responsibility of privacy is left to the user (managing friend lists, monitoring privacy settings, respecting the sharing preferences of others, and deleting old posts), Snapchat forces its users to maintain a degree of privacy by means of disappearing messages and expiring posts ("stories"). Indeed, it is much more difficult to make a privacy slip up on Snapchat than, say, Instagram: old posts don’t remain available after twenty-four hours, and messages can only be viewed once (a user can, however, choose to replay one message per day).

That is not to say that privacy slip ups are impossible on Snapchat. Like any other social platform, it is possible to share information that may not be in one’s best interest, like nude photos or videos of illegal activity. Snapchat does a far better job at defending its user’s privacy—at least to each other—than other social media platforms. Ultimately, however, the bulk of the responsibility to maintain privacy falls on the users. Snapchat’s privacy-protecting features are useless if screenshotting is normalized, after all. Fortunately, a distinct social code has developed on Snapchat, and it works to preserve the sanctity of Snapchat’s core values (and allures): confidentiality and expiry.

Confidentiality

Academics often refer to social networks as "networked publics," a blanket term which is meant to cover all imaginable social networks. Most platforms fit this description well: by and large, they are networks of friends and acquaintances who share posts with one another in public—or semi-public, depending on a user’s privacy settings—spaces. The term ‘networked publics’ also serves to emphasize the open and non-private nature of these social platforms. This term is becoming outdated, however: Snapchat, one of the most popular social networks, hardly can be described as a network—or a public. The term ‘networked public’ has two obvious elements: network, and public. Snapchat is neither.

According to Merriam-Webster, a network is defined as an "interconnected or interrelated chain, group, or system." For an online platform to be a social network, it must facilitate communication among more than two parties. Facebook fits this description well: users post information which is then distributed to one’s friends via their feeds. These friends then engage with the post by liking and commenting on it, and they will often also engage with one another in the comments of a post. In this way, a Facebook post is not a one-dimensional (one-way) communication sent solely from an individual to a group. Instead, it is a polydimensional communication: from an individual to their friends via the post itself, from their friends back to the poster via liking (or ‘reacting,’ as it has come to be called), and among friends by way of responding and engaging with comments.

Text messaging, however, exhibits none of these qualities. Text messaging is direct communication among two parties. For that reason, it is rare to hear text messaging referred to as a network. Instead, it is referred to as being within a distinctly different category: online messaging. Indeed, even group chats—which are networks at their core—are referred to as messaging. And while it has become increasingly common for traditional social networks to implement some form of messaging in their platform (look at the deep integration of Messenger into Facebook and the recent addition of direct messages into Instagram), such sub-platforms are referred to not as social networks themselves, but rather as online messaging (despite their deep integration within social networks).

Snapchat exists in a state of limbo between these two classifications. It has many of the qualities of social networks—posts (stories) and friends—but lacks the polydimensional communication characteristic of standard ‘networked publics.’ Snapchat offers posts in the form of ‘stories,’ but they don’t show up in a feed. Instead, Snapchat displays a list of accounts who have published stories (remember, stories only last twenty-four hours), and the user must tap on a user to see their story. And, while it is possible to ‘like’ and comment on posts on Facebook, Snapchat offers no such functionality. The central functionality of Snapchat lies in its disappearing direct messages—videos, photos, or text messages, sent directly from one user to another. It is hardly a network.

Equally central to the term ‘networked public’ is the idea of a public. When referring to social situations, a public is an open (or selectively open) exchange, where information freely passes across its many members. Instagram and Facebook are very much publics: most users maintain a large network of friends—their public—and their posts are visible to nearly all of this network’s members. The key element is that posts are accessible by all members of this network—or, if the account is not private, anyone—making the network either semi-public or public, respectively.

"I have just about as many friends on Snapchat as I do on Facebook and Instagram, and I’m not really that picky about whose friend requests I accept. My account is private and all, but it’s mostly so that I don’t show up in Google searches… sometimes I forget about how everything I post on social media is shown to all of my friends. It’s easy to forget that. So yeah, I would say that my feed, even though I marked my account as ‘private,’ is really a sort of public."

With the small exception of stories, Snapchat does not resemble a public. The vast majority of sharing on Snapchat takes place through direct expiring messages from one user to another, invisible to all other members of the both user’s friends. Snapchat is not an open exchange of information like other social networks. Instead, it is a platform by which friends communicate directly—and confidentially—with one another. Indeed, the idea of Snapchat as a public is antithetical to its most fundamental allure: privacy through direct, confidential, and expiring messages.

The privacy offered by Snapchat is only relevant in the context of interpersonal relationships among digital natives and their peers. Snapchat’s disappearing messages and expiring stories are no match for the surveillance prowess of a government or the targeting prowess of a well-funded advertising agency. Regardless, such privacy adversaries are not the causes of digital natives’ obsession with Snapchat—and privacy—nor should they be: the ability to maintain privacy among one another has a much more direct impact on the day-to-day lives of digital natives than the ability to maintain privacy from any corporation or government. While the ultimate threats to the privacy of digital natives are external—snooping advertisers and information-hungry governments—ultimately, the biggest threats to the privacy of a native individual are the prying eyes of other natives. Snapchat is an effective tool in protecting this privacy.


Snapchat is not without its flaws, however, and there are various ways that the confidentiality of Snapchat is compromised on a daily basis. Fundamental to the notion of confidentiality is the knowledge that one’s correspondent is actually who they claim to be, and this verification can often be difficult to obtain via digital means. Confidentiality on Snapchat is broken mostly in two ways: natives sharing their account details with one another (a surprisingly common activity), and opening messages in the presence of one another. These activities are surprisingly common, and they pose a very real threat to the perceived confidentiality of Snapchat. And, surprisingly, these activities have been normalized.

When natives share their account details with others, it is usually because they want someone else to maintain their ‘streaks’ while they are away from their phone for an extended period of time. A Snapchat streak is a number that represents the number of consecutive days that two users have messaged one another. A surprisingly high value is placed on them, and they are often taken to be representative of the health and seriousness of a relationship. When natives are forced to part with their phones for more than twenty-four hours, they often give their Snapchat login details to a friend who then periodically send messages to each of the users with which there is a streak. This is a surprisingly common affair, and I normally see it happen with my friends on Snapchat once every few weeks. While ‘substitute snapping,’ as I like to call it, is still somewhat rare and is nearly always announced beforehand, there have been times where it has caught me by surprise, and a message that I sent to one user was opened by an unintended substitute recipient. This has led me to be more conscious of the possible repercussions if someone other than the intended recipient were to open the message—and this feeling is not uncommon.

The second threat to the confidentiality of Snapchat is screenpeeking, or the inability to ensure that only the intended recipient will be able to see the message. And, while most Snapchat messages are usually little more than a poor and rushed selfie, the thought that someone other than the intended recipient could see the message has a very real stifling effect on the sort of messages that are sent on Snapchat. It is a social app and is often used in social settings—Snapchat usage (and smartphones in general) truly has no geographical or situational boundaries—making it unrealistic to expect perfect confidentiality. Still, it can be a bit off-putting to send a personal message and receive a group selfie in reply.

Expiry

The second allure of Snapchat is its promise of privacy through expiry. It is the idea that messages cannot resurface later in time, and that one is ‘safe’ to send less filtered messages and to consider their potential implications—in terms of privacy or otherwise—to a lesser degree. The message will, at least in theory, disappear after ten seconds. Snapchat itself offers no way to ‘save’ snaps—to do so would be to work against their platform’s most attractive feature—but most smartphones offer simple ways to save the screen’s contents. (It is important to note that purely text-based snaps can be saved very easily (simply by tapping and holding the message), however, video and photo messages cannot be saved by Snapchat.) On iOS, this is done by simultaneously pressing the home and power buttons, and it is done on Android by pressing and holding the power and volume down buttons. Snapchat offers no formal protection against screenshotting—iOS does not allow apps to prevent a screenshot from being taken, and screenshots are allowed on Snapchat’s Android app to maintain a consistent user experience with the iOS app—but does notify the person whose message was captured that their snap was screenshotted. In some scenarios, it is considered appropriate and necessary to screenshot. In others, it is neither appropriate nor inappropriate, though perhaps a bit strange. And in some situations, screenshotting is very problematic.

It is not uncommon for two people to be connected on Snapchat but not via SMS, making Snapchat the only possible medium of communication. If one of these people want to send a photo that they need to not have disappear—such as a photo of an address or note, for example—they may first send a message that says "screenshot the next snap." This is a scenario in which screenshotting is both appropriate and necessary.

Other times, it can be appropriate and acceptable—but certainly not standard—to screenshot a message. The vast majority of Snapchat messages fall into this category: simple selfies or photos that are meant not for meaningful communication, but rather for the maintenance of a streak. Such snaps exist not for their content but rather for their consequence: to continue a streak or obtain Snapchat’s ‘best friend’ status (given to users who message one another frequently). To screenshot this type of message would be strange (and it would serve little purpose), but there would be no pleads for deletion. If one was to screenshot constantly they may be confronted by their correspondents (who would note that it is a bit strange that the user is nullifying the effect of perhaps Snapchat’s most attractive feature), but few Snapchat users screenshot that frequently.

In some cases, however, screenshotting on Snapchat can cause immense problems. Take, for example, a snap of illegal activity, such as an underage nude photo or a video of underage drinking. Snapchat is a common medium for such photos and videos, due in part to both Snapchat’s promise of privacy and the lower standard of thought and consideration put into posting as a result. When these photos are screenshotted—and they are the most likely to be screenshotted, as they are the most memorable and scandalous—there can be serious (and justified) alarm for the sender.

In the case of the video documenting underage drinking, the sender—and everyone else potentially pictured in the video—could face serious disciplinary consequences from both police, parents, and peers if the photo was to leak. The screenshotting of an underage nude photo, however, has consequences for both the sender and the recipient. In the United States, it is a crime to create, distribute, receive, or be in possession of sexually explicit images of minors. By taking the photo, the sender has already committed a crime. By sending it, they commit another crime. For receiving it, the recipient is now also in conflict with the law. And, by screenshotting the photo, they are now guilty of being in possession of illegal imagery. The consequences are not purely legal, however: with a nude photo out of their control, the recipient has the ability to cause the sender severe embarrassment. Not only is this a blatant invasion of privacy, it is also wholly unethical.

Screenshotting on Snapchat, although being in direct opposition to the Snapchat’s promises of privacy, serves an important purpose: it is a reminder that nothing transmitted on Snapchat—or anywhere online, for that matter—is truly guaranteed to stay private. I intentionally avoid invoking the cliché that "nothing online is private," because it is fundamentally untrue: some communication online, with the help of proper encryption and a trustworthy correspondent, is truly private. More true, however, is that there is no guarantee that any communication will stay private. Screenshotting—and the norms which have evolved around it—are a valuable reminder of this truth.

Cover image: Snapchat, via Wikimedia Commons.