My parents refer to Snapchat as the “sexting app,” but no one I know uses it to share photos of their nether regions. The app, which allows people to send self-destructing picture and video messages to their friends, is for me a G-rated destination. Its bright yellow icon features a faceless ghost that greets me each time I unlock my iPhone.
Towards the end of 2011, my friend Lauren told me to download Snapchat. The two of us met in Ecuador four summers ago on the sort of volunteer trip that some students use as fodder for their college essays. Lauren and I talked for hours every day—under the stars in the Andes, on the beaches of the Galapagos Islands, in the streets of Quito. After four weeks, we hugged goodbye beside a baggage claim carousel in Miami.
From then on, we were separated by two thousand miles. But with Snapchat, her smiling face was often just a tap-and-hold away. I don’t remember any of her photos in great detail. Every picture shared on Snapchat vanishes into the cloud after ten seconds or less.
I’ve often wondered why Snapchat’s mascot is a faceless ghost. Maybe it’s because when a friend sends me a self-destructing photo, all I’m left with is the spirit of the image they shared. Faraway friends pop in and out of my life through my Snapchat screen. Five seconds here, ten seconds there—ghost-like in their ephemerality.
On Snapchat, Lauren and I shared stupid little moments that didn’t merit the permanence of a regular photograph. No individual photo was all that important. But collectively, they painted a portrait of outlives. For almost a year, she was the only person I knew who was using the app. We were able to keep in touch without really having to say anything at all.
More and more of my friends started using Snapchat around the time I started college. Every week, I’d get a notification telling me that someone I knew had created an account. The app was no longer just a little world for Lauren and me. It quickly filled with the ghosts of my other friends.
Snapchat seems counterintuitive because we’re so used to photos that are made to last. But it’s only within the last few decades that photography has become a routine part of the human experience. Cameras would seem like black magic to anyone who lived before the nineteenth century. Some cultures still believe that a photo can steal your soul.
This belief isn’t all that surprising. Most things in everyday life are ephemeral. You can trust that your every word won’t be recorded. No one will remember in great detail the things you said or did today. Snapchat makes photographs act more like our memories—vivid in the moment, but fragile in the long term. The impermanence is freeing.
The paradox of Snapchat is that it makes photos more ephemeral, but also more demanding of my attention. The app imposes scarcity in an age when digital memory is abundant. I don’t want to look away from a picture if I know I only have a few seconds to catch a glimpse.