Before I begin, apologies are in order. To the 310 million monthly active Snapchat users, many of whom are in their teens and early 20s: Sorry, but old people are about to crash your party. (I’m not even 40, and I’m one of them.)
To the hip kids who have grown up with the four-year-old short video sharing app: It is with regrets that admittedly I may even incorrectly explain some of how this service—with its myriad of odd features—works. (What do you care? You’re young and you know everything already. Why are you even here?) And finally, to the adults reading this to discover what they’ve been missing: Apologies, but Snapchat will show you things—like what you’d look like as a glasses-wearing chihuahua—that you’ll never unsee.
And that is exactly why the app is exploding in use, even recently overtaking Twitter in terms of daily users. A social network where people share photos and short videos for just 24 hours, Snapchat is the answer to the Internet’s problem of never forgetting. And with a rotating set of fun features and filters, it’s also the response to Facebook and Twitter’s stale experiences.
As with any social network, much of your Snapchat experience will depend on who you follow, but on this one you’re less likely to find carefully composed posts. Instead, Snapchat all about spontaneity and documenting things “in the now.” Or, as the company’s founder Evan Spiegel puts it, “instant expression.”
Navigating the App
When opening Snapchat, forget the infinite scroll of the social networks you’re used to, because this app immediately springboards the camera to the screen. The philosophy behind this unconventional landing place is that chats all begin with the conversation, and in Snapchat, images do the talking.
That makes even more sense when you think of how the app treats its photos and videos ephemerally. Just as spoken words only hang in the air long enough for ears to hear them, these images last just long enough to be seen (or more accurately, for 24 hours) and then they disappear.
Navigating the app also works a little differently here. Instead of left- or right-hand anchored menus, Snapchat has users swipe to access other elements of the service. For instance, from the camera, swipe to the right and the chat screen will appear, swipe down and your account preferences will drop in, and swipe left to view other users’ snaps. (You can also swipe left one more time for the “Discover” screen, which displays stories by media entities like ESPN, CNN, and People, also a Time Inc. publication.) Sure, there are also buttons you can press to reach these screens (the bottom-left square for your chats, the top-center ghost for your account, and the bottom-right hamburger menu for your stories), but kids these days swipe their Snapchat like it’s Tinder—another app you’re probably too old to be using.
Mastering the Camera
Snapchat’s camera works a little differently than the default Android or iOS camera app, so it’s worth walking through. For instance, if you tap on the shutter button it will take a photo, but if you hold down on it, Snapchat will record video.
At the top right of the camera screen, there’s a button for toggling between the rear and front-facing camera, and at the top left there’s a control for the flash.
Snapchat’s camera filters are the app’s secret weapon. Hidden from plain view, you have to know how to access them to use them. Take an image, then swipe left or right while on the camera screen and you’ll see a filter slide over across it. These filters aren’t obvious, but they’re a great way to give life to your boring adult snaps. There are even some cool geo-located filters based on where you are, whether it’s in a city or at an event. (Custom-made geo-filters for festivities like weddings are all the rage these days.)
Alternatively, before you take a photo, press and hold on a person’s face and Snapchat’s lens options will pop up. This hugely entertaining feature maps out the face (or faces) on screen, and can apply animations and other graphics to the mug. For instance, the puking rainbow lens is a favorite among Snapchat users. Just apply it to your face, then open your mouth and watch a carnival of color pour out. From dogs wearing glasses to carnival mirror-type contortions, there’s always something new to see. And through some slick promotions, the app frequently cycles in new lenses to play with based on popular movies and shows.
However you tweak it, once you take a photo or video, the app shows your work, and new options pop into the frame. At the top right, you’ll see a sticker icon, which yields a bunch of emoji-like graphics you can use to gussy up your image. Next to is it a text icon for adding a words. If you’re not in love with the default sans serif font in a gray bar across your photos, tap the text icon again, and you get more options. And the icon at the very right is a pen, which can be used for doodling all over your masterpiece.
At the bottom left, if you shot a video, there’s a mute button, so you can mask out the noise from your movie. If you shot a picture, a timer icon appears there instead, allowing you to set the duration that your photo will be on screen. Snaps can only be up to 10 seconds long, whether it’s a video or a photo. If you want something longer than that, you’ll need to build a Snapchat Story, which is what the third button at the bottom left is for, but more on that later. The second button is a download button so you can save your snaps to your smartphone, which doesn’t happen automatically.
And finally, at the bottom right you’ll see an arrow. Tap that when you’re ready to share your snap with your friends.
Chatting Like a Teen
You could spend hours trying to decode the mysteries of Snapchat’s communication screen. You could also spend hours selecting funds for your 401(k). You’re the adult, so can you decide the best use of your time. But here are some quick tips for communicating with friends via Snapchat somewhat effectively.
Chatting via the app is all about talking with pictures. Not like hieroglyphics or their modern day equivalent, emojis, but actual photos and videos. On the chat screen, you’ll see your contacts’ names with a while bunch of shapes next to them. There’s a speech bubble, which means the latest message was a standard text-based chat. The triangles mean that you sent the last item, and the squares show that your friend was the last person to send you a snap.
If the shape is solid, that means it has not been opened yet. If the shape is white with a colored outline, it has been viewed. Pink shapes mean the snap had no audio (like photos). Purple shapes mean there is sound in the snap (like videos). There are even green icons, which means there’s money (through online payment company Square) changing hands in the post. But grownups write checks, so don’t expect to see many green arrows in your inbox.
And next to your friends’ names, you’ll see a bunch of emoji that try to describe your relationship to that person, at least through Snapchat. Baby heads are new-to-you friends. A birthday cake means it’s their birthday. Hearts (pink, red, yellow, whatever) mean this person is your best friend, due to all the snaps you two send back and forth. Forget that. You know who is your best friend? The guy at the car wash who vacuums the nastiness out your cup holders. Just don’t go sending him snaps — give him money instead.
Tweaking Your Preferences
Swiping down from the camera screen reveals your account preference screen, a mashup of contacts and personal settings that helps to refine your Snapchat experience.
The big yellow ghost icon at the center of the screen is your snap code. Tap on it, and it will morph into a camera so you can transpose your mug into the middle of it, if you please. The dots around the edge work like a QR code. Just point Snapchat’s camera at another users’ snap code, touch the screen, and it will brings up their account so you can quickly add them to your friend list.
Next to your username is your snap score. This is a number that quantifies just how good a Snapchatter you are, using an equation based on how many photos or videos you’ve sent and how many you’ve opened. Snap scores are about as meaningful as your all-time high Ms. Pac-Man score. In other words, you could brag about them, but no one really cares, and years from now you’ll look back at all the time spent amassing points and realize you could’ve done something something more useful than Snapchat, like learning the piano or calligraphy.
Below the snap code are the app’s contact management options. You can see who you’re following (“My Friends”), who is following you (“Added Me”) and you can find other people to follow (“Add Friends”). In addition to adding friends via snap codes, you can type in friends’ usernames, or even add friends who are nearby. (This isn’t an automatic feature — both Snapchat users must navigate to this screen to activate it.)
Snapchat also has a “Quick Add” feature that can be a little jarring, because the app will reach into your phone’s contact lists to find users based on their phone numbers. This is why your plumber’s account may be suggested to you — not because he’s a total creeper, which is beside the point.
At the top of the account preference panel you’ll also see a trophy icon. Tapping on this reveals a list of achievements that you’ve amassed while using Snapchat. For instance, you get a video tape after sending for your first video snap, and an envelope once you’ve verified your email settings. I haven’t collected many trophies myself, but I’m hoping there’s a broken watch for wasting a certain amount of time with the app.
Finally, at the top right, you’ll see a gear for your more serious settings. Most of these are self-explanatory, but you may want to pay attention to the “Who Can…” section. These are essentially your privacy settings. While Snapchat is solid at keeping non-followers from viewing your snaps, you can refine restrictions even further by blocking users who have friended you. Like your plumber. Your weirdly friendly plumber.
Finally, the good stuff. From the camera screen, swiping to the left reveals the Stories panel. If you think about this page as “catching up on my stories,” like you’d say before settling in for a night of Murder She Wrote, then you’re in the right mindset.
Snaps are just individual photos or videos. But when strung together, one photo and movie after another, they become stories—chronological accounts of a day.
There are three sections to the Stories screen: Discover, Live, and All Stories. Starting at the bottom, All Stories is where you’ll find photos and videos from the people you friend directly on Snapchat. Whether it’s bragging celebrities sunbathing on a yacht or your teenage niece goofing off with friends at track practice, you can view their stories repeatedly until they expire, and when they are updated with new snaps, they will pop up to the top of the list. But beware, friends can not only tell when you’ve viewed their snaps and stories, they can see if someone has taken a screenshot, too. Saving someone else’s photos and images is a hot topic on Snapchat, so be prepared if you lose a friend over the practice. Since Snapchat is all about enjoying the moment (and then letting it go), saving another person’s image may not go over well.
Next up, the Live section us a collection of snaps curated by Snapchat around a timely event. So, for instance, it could be a story about an NBA basketball game with images from fans and players alike. Or it could be a day in the life of a political figure, a type of live story that’s become very popular this election season.
Lastly, the Discover section (and the Discover screen, if you swipe to the left one more time) is the biggest hook for older users. While you may not have as many friends on the service as younger users, you probably do have a long-term relationship with media brands like CNN, MTV, and Cosmopolitan. Snapchat is using entities like these to attract older users, and it seems to be working. With a collection of stories within each outlet’s portal, browsing their content is a lot like flipping through a print magazine, in the time before smartphones. Only these stories have videos, and don’t stack up after you’ve read through them.
And describing Snapchat in that simple way — despite all the emoji and snap scores — it actually makes perfect sense. Like a magazine, Snapchat is a customized collection of stories pulled together every day for every user. Seems straightforward, right? Thank goodness I didn’t have to describe a magazine to a young people.