When I tell people I’m researching news on Snapchat the most common response is “I’ve heard of Snapchat but have no idea how it works” So now this.
This blog post serves to explain how Snapchat works as a smartphone-only messaging/social network/news source. Snapchat is all of these things: a Frankenstein mobile app animal.
To be fair, not that different from any of its peers that have also expanded into multi-purpose platforms (think Facebook going from college student friends platform to integrating news and advertising and video streaming).
Snapchat began as a visually-based instant messaging service, which is still its central function. Users can send images or short vertical videos up to 11 seconds long.
What sets Snapchat apart from its peers is that messages are deleted after viewing. For young people growing up in a world where privacy is a depleted commodity this is valuable.
If someone takes a screenshot of your message or views it more than once the sender receives a notification. This allows senders to monitor who is seeing their content and know who has copies.
An interactive element allows users to draw on their image or video, apply filters or stickers to decorate. There is a written caption option with a 31 character limit but Snapchat is largely used as a visual form of communication (Best 2016).
Each ‘snap’, as messages are called, disappears after being viewed and is deleted from Snapchat servers (When does Snapchat delete Snaps and Chats?).
From messaging to news media
News on Snapchat follows a similar format. A story is told either through a series of images or short vertical videos.
The news feed feature of Snapchat is named Snapchat Discover and was introduced in 2015 (Introducing Discover).
Here, contracted news outlets and publishers display their main headlines with an image in a mason grid style. For the user, this experience is akin to seeing the covers of magazines or newspapers laid out on display. Here is a screenshot:
A tap on the cover page allows you to flip through headlines from that publisher. If you want to read/watch the full story you can swipe up on a headline to watch the story in the images or short video format mentioned above.
But unlike a newspaper, you cannot skip ahead to your favourite section. You must view each headline and click on it to bring up the next. You must complete the cycle if you want to go back to a previous story.
Ominous memories of mandatory viewing depicted in 1984, Hunger Games or Black Mirror come to mind. Although in the real world we already have the mandatory viewing of ads on YouTube or autoplay ads on Twitter and Facebook feeds. Perhaps this style in Snapchat Discover is not so new, just the next step in a chain?
For the publisher, it is an assurance that each story gets eyeballs. The user can close the publication altogether but cannot skip forward or back.
Advertising in Snapchat Discover
Ads are placed in between stories at a rate of four ads per publication.
Interestingly, there are no links back to websites or external sources. All news content is native to Snapchat, can only be shared within Snapchat, and the only call-to-action buttons are for subscribing to the feed of that news provider.
Snapchat Discover doesn’t even have a website where content can be viewed. Everything exists within the smartphone-only app of Snapchat.
That is the basics of how news on Snapchat works. Of course, reading how an app works can only take you so far. If it’s still unclear and you need to know having a play for yourself on the app. It is the quickest way to learn.
But then delete it because you probably don’t need yet another social media stream in your life, right?
The Snapchat audience
If you are aged between 13 and 17 it is likely that your social media of choice is Snapchat. You may be one of its 160 million daily users, over half of which fall into this age group.
For many users, Snapchat Discover will be their first time navigating news content.
As I mentioned earlier, Snapchat content is transient. Any content uploaded gets deleted from servers a maximum of 24 hours after being published.
The result is a stream of news content unarchived, unsearchable, and therefore unaccountable to media regulators, the public, or to history.
Not just any news outlet can publish to Snapchat. In fact, Snapchat has such a volume of eyeballs in a niche corner of the market that news outlets pay for the privilege and adhere to contractual rules outlined by the platform.
My research blog mission
These conditions allow Snapchat to reign with the proverbial iron fist what news sources are seen by its young users. Some reports even suggest they have final say on the content – essentially acting as a news editor without the tiresome regulations or ethics.
This is why I have taken up the task of researching news on Snapchat. It is taking digital news media in a new direction and with a previously disengaged audience.
In the coming weeks and months (years?) I will post my explorations and findings about news on Snapchat Discover. For example, the role of celebrities, the effect of emojis on headlines, the impact of unarchived news and more.
Keep following for regular blog posts as I explore the varied niches of this journalistic rabbit hole. Subscribe if you like posts straight to your inbox.