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How Snapchat Built its Most Addictive Feature

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Live Stories show life in different cities and behind-the-scenes footage

We are already living in the Third Era of Snapchat. The red-hot mobile app started in 2011 as a humble photo messaging service, where teens traded spontaneous selfies of their everyday lives. Later, the messaging app also became a social network thanks to a feature called My Story, which let users post photos and videos for large groups of friends to see for up to 24 hours.

Now Snapchat’s aims are no smaller than taking on the media ecosystem’s 1,000-pound gorilla: television. Live Stories, the company’s most unusual and compelling feature, has turned Snapchat into a broadcast platform like NBC or YouTube. But instead of being powered by Hollywood actors or up-and-coming online video stars, Live Stories are a kind of real-time, crowdsourced documentary made up on the fly by the app’s 100 million daily users. They’re as weird and silly and funny as the snaps you get from your friends. And they may help guide the future of user-generated content on other social networks.

Every day, Snapchat users send thousands of images and videos taken with the app directly to the company in hopes that they might appear in a Live Story. Though the concept (originally called “Our Story”) was initially applied only to music festivals, it’s since been expanded to include everything from a daily madcap montage of life in New York City to a somber remembrance for the victims of June’s church shooting in Charleston, S.C. Like everything else on Snapchat, these stories are temporary, lasting only 24 hours. But people are consuming them ravenously, with the most popular ones being seen by more than 20 million users during their short lifespans.

Landing a snap on a Live Story is extremely competitive. A team of curators based in New York and Los Angeles sift through as many as 20,000 submissions for each story, picking only 50 to 60 of them to include, according to Ben Schwerin, Snapchat’s director of partnerships for Live Stories. That’s a 0.25% chance of having your snap chosen.

“Obviously it’s very hard,” Schwerin says. “We like to see snaps that are fun, snaps that show unique perspective on that event.”

Often the stories are stitched together to create a kind of narrative arc. The first snap of the New York City story might show someone saying good morning during an early jog while the last one might show someone saying good night with a video of the lit-up skyline. The company, which is currently producing as many as three new Live Stories each day, says it prefers to include videos rather than still images.

In addition to being filled with content from average users, Live Stories can often offer a behind-the-scenes peek at special events. During the NBA playoffs, stories regularly showed players preparing in the locker room before tip-off. At September’s iHeartRadio Music Festival, Snapchatters could watch Ryan Seacrest joking with Sam Smith backstage or see the festival crew scurry to reconfigure the stage in between artists’ sets. These insider moments are typically recorded either by the organization hosting an event or by the app’s employees, who travel to big Live Stories venues to provide tips and technical support like a kind of Snapchat special ops team.

“We’re able to supplement with shots that a normal fan or ticket holder wouldn’t be able to get access to,” says Chris Williams, iHeartMedia’s chief product officer. Williams had half a dozen iHeartMedia staffers combing the grounds of September’s iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, looking for compelling moments to capture. The best snaps are sent along to Snapchat’s curators, who have final editorial control over the content that appears in all Live Stories. “It’s probably the closest thing to a real-time documentary that one can experience,” Williams says.

Brands are eager to tap into Snapchat’s young audience, more than two-thirds of whom are in the coveted 18-34 demographic in the United States. In addition to Live Stories, more than a dozen companies, including iHeartMedia and TIME’s parent company, have partnered with Snapchat on a feature called Discover, which feeds users daily news and entertainment from branded mobile channels.

Unlike social behemoth Facebook, Snapchat has very little information about its users. The startup may not even want that data—CEO Evan Spiegel has dismissed targeted ads “creepy.” Instead, Snapchat is pitching advertisers the same way TV executives do: by touting the massive audience that can view a single piece of media at the same time.

“People who watch the stories all watch it in the same time frame, and that creates a conversation around content,” says Schwerin. “It’s all very timely and relevant. It’s sort of like TV before DVR.”

The strategy may work because Snapchat has created legitimately must-see content for a sizable number of young people—and its full-screen video ads, inserted up to three times between the snaps in a Live Story, are harder to ignore than a promoted post on Twitter or Facebook. “Mobile has often been criticized of being limited in terms of its ability to create a real immersive brand experience,” says Cathy Boyle, a senior analyst at eMarketer. “But the ads that can be served with a Live Story certainly can deliver a more immersive brand message.” Still, Boyle warns that the company will have to provide improved analytics and some level of targeting to attract big marketing dollars. To that effect, the company has begun experimenting with geo-targeted ads.

Whatever Snapchat’s ultimate fate, it’s already changing the way people across other social networks interact as well. Twitter is planning to launch a new feature called Project Lightning that mimics Live Stories by offering a curated feed of photos, videos and tweets tied to specific live events. Curation is all the rage across Silicon Valley right now as tech companies try to package content that is concise, consumable and easy to sell ads against.

That’s Live Stories in a nutshell. “What they’re trying to do is give people an opportunity to sort of collectively share the experience in the moment with other people,” says Scott Campbell, a professor of telecommunications at the University of Michigan. “It might provide people that feeling of being connected, [that] we’re all part of something that’s really cool.”

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