Late last year, I made Snapchat—the popular vanishing-messages app—disappear from my smartphone.
Way back in 2013, I was addicted: I sent 20,000 snaps in a span of two months. My friends and I were mostly using Snapchat to send each other pictures of cats, or selfies enhanced with hand-drawn embellishments when our college lectures got boring. Sometimes we’d also covertly scan the “Best Friends” lists to see who was snapping whom most often (I can assure you that this was an extremely accurate way to figure out who on campus was about to start dating).
Several years later, however, the app’s user interface has gotten too busy. My friends’ Snap Stories—which are basically status updates in picture or video form—were taking too long to load and growing harder to access, because Snapchat had buried them under new media content and ads. And the app seemed to drain more and more of my phone’s battery.
But this all pales in comparison to Snapchat’s biggest flaw: even though its maker, Snap, recently filed for an initial public offering, the app still hasn’t found a way to make itself indispensable. Nearly six years after its creation, it is neither a necessary tool for communication nor a reliable source of news. And it’s not even that much fun anymore, now that the novelty of masking selfies with wacky filters has worn off.
Snapchat will always have the honor of pioneering ephemeral media, but being first is not always good enough.
When Instagram launched its “Stories” feature in August 2016, at first it just seemed like a cheap knockoff of Snapchat’s feature of the same name. But it swiftly proved it wasn’t. Instagram Stories took just five months to gain the 150 million daily users that it took Snapchat a little over five years to accumulate—and yes, I’m now one of them.
Some of this may be because Instagram had an easier job from the outset. It started off merely needing to convince its existing users—of whom there are 400 million each day, to Snapchat’s 158 million—to take advantage of a new feature, one already familiar to those who also used Snapchat. Snapchat, on the other hand, not only had to attract its users from scratch but to persuade them to use a tool unlike anything else out there at the time.
Regardless, six months after the launch of Stories, Instagram is now winning at Snapchat’s game, and it’s not because of its starting advantage. I think it’s simply because Instagram’s platform for disappearing stories is better.
With Instagram Stories, pictures and videos come out much clearer and sharper, and more generally, it’s simply easier to find people on Instagram than on Snapchat. You don’t need to know a specific username; you can very easily search for people and companies to follow—and receive stories from—just by typing in their actual name.
But whether more millennials flee Snapchat for Instagram might not even matter that much, because both platforms may face an even bigger issue: what if it turns out that disappearing photos and videos are simply another digital fad?
In the end, this would merely be a bump in the road for Facebook-owned Instagram, which could return to just being a platform for sharing always-there photos and videos. Snapchat, meanwhile, has no such footing to fall back on. I have a feeling that if others get as bored with Snapchat’s offerings as I did, the biggest disappearing picture of all may end up being the company itself.