Will The Social Messaging Trend Self-Destruct?

Recently, I asked my friend for her Snapchat handle so we could send each other some silly, self-destructing messages. I assumed she used the app because she’s young and tech-savvy, and we have mutual friends who Snapchat each other. She laughed, said she didn’t use Snapchat and asked, “Should I? Isn’t it just for teenagers to send naked pictures without getting caught?”

Her cheeky remark typifies the attitude that most adults, media and otherwise, take toward Snapchat and alternative messaging apps in general. Messaging apps, like Snapchat, have gained notoriety as edgier alternatives to SMS texting or Facebook Messenger. Despite their massive popularity, these apps are often portrayed as being used exclusively by bored teens who are glued to their smartphones and unable (or unwilling) to carry out normal, face-to-face interactions with human beings.

Some people go so far as to label these apps asocial, claiming that using a phone to digitally document and share a meal, a sunset, or a concert makes people miss out on the richness of unmediated experience. The idea is that the act of documenting and sharing isolates people from their surroundings and cheapens the experience of a particular moment.

This attitude is troubling because it presumes there are “right” and “wrong” ways to experience life. But documenting and sharing an event with friends using a smartphone can be an integral part of any experience, and even enhance it, especially for people who have grown up with a mobile device in their hand. Imagine saying that having a conversation with a friend in the moment, or writing a journal entry afterward, cheapens an experience. Absurd, right?

In a way, Snapchat is just a more ephemeral type of journal, designed to last for moments, not millennia. This actually makes it more appropriate to the type of content sharing that social media has led us to. We don’t necessarily need permanent records of our pancake breakfast or a funny street sign we saw. But we do appreciate being able to share these moments with friends, even fleetingly, and doing so clearly builds our social connections.

Because messaging apps like Kik, WeChat, WhatsApp, Confide, and even Snapchat were created to be used on mobile devices, they offer a user experience that’s superior to the keyboard-centric realm of email or even Facebook chats. By taking advantage of mobile, the primary and most convenient means of accessing the internet for most people, messaging apps provide a fresh, mobile-first means of communication that embraces the best aspects of social media: spontaneity, intimacy, and communal affirmation (not to mention images and emoji).

Sure, social messaging apps are different from what came before – but the printing press was different from stone tablets, too. Some messages just need to move faster, and stick around for less time. Making connections through messaging apps requires ditching the assumption that meaningful conversations are impossible on mobile, and reconsidering the idea that these apps are only for the young, impetuous, and amorous.

Change is never easy, but opposing social messaging apps is the digital equivalent of “Get off my lawn!” It’s lazy, as well as incredibly dismissive of the power these technologies offer to a new generation.