The ubiquity of smartphones and the increase in the their photo-taking ability has led to an incredible rise in the amount of pictures people take and share with their peers online. In fact, over 1 billion new photos are shared online per day, across various photo-sharing communities. Leading the photo taking and sharing movement are Snapchat and Instagram, each of which boast a usage of millions of images shared per day; Instagram users post an average of 80+ Million photos per day, and Snapchat users more than 700 Million.
While it appears that the two apps fulfill similar niches within the application ecosystem, it is worth considering why Snapchat use and interactions were associated with positive mood, while Instagram use, especially as the number of strangers followed increased, were correlated with upward social comparison and depressive symptoms. The end result of both applications seems to just be sharing photos, so how is it that such a discrepancy in users’ emotions could arise? In this post, we will consider how the applications’ inherent interaction models and system designs may lead to differences in user happiness.
Permanence and Audience
The biggest and most obvious difference between the two applications lies in the permanence of the posted content.
Photos on Snapchat (“snaps”), whether they’re posted on your story or sent to specific individuals, self-destruct by design, adding an element of ephemerality and life-likeness to the content; The life experiences recorded via snaps are temporary, and so are the recordings themselves. They’re also only visible to those who have chosen to follow you via the app before the content was posted. In effect, the audience of each picture is rather small, limited in time and breadth.
Instagram photos, on the other hand, persist online and are visible to everyone until they are manually deleted. This permanence adds a sense of performativity to the photos, as if they serve as a portrayal of who we are that we will be able to maintain both now and in the future. Instagram users tend to view the feed of photos as portraying their “best self,” or the self that they would like to be viewed as. Taking advantage of and further perpetuating this construal, Tinder allows for integrations with Instagram so users can display to their potential mates the series of photos that best represents them.
So is permanence (or the lack thereof) inherently unhealthy? It certainly seems like, when publishing or posting any content that will persist, we need to consider the implications of said content for our future selves. Is this who I really am? Am I truly happy with the way in which I’m portraying myself? What should we do if, at some point in the future, we contradict a current perspective? These are important considerations to keep in mind, knowing that change is one of the few constants in life. Ephemeral media and its producers are not burdened with these considerations; We can present ourselves, as we are right now, without it being a reflection of the bigger picture of who we are. Posts can be framed simply as a reflection of whatever we are currently up to, which will no doubt change. Thus, the permanence of Instagram adds a level of stress when deciding what photos to post that Snapchat effectively sidesteps altogether.
Quantification and Description of self
There is an inherent quantification and reduction of self that runs rampant across most social media sites — people can be described in terms of the number of friends, connections, likes they have, their ratio of “follower to following”, the bio that they write. Let’s compare the instances of quantification between Instagram and Snapchat and examine the effects they may have.
Quantification is everywhere on Instagram. Let’s start with someone’s profile. (I’ll use actress and model Cara Delevigne’s (@caradelevigne) profile in the below examples, as her Instagram account is much more interesting than mine).
Based on their profile, each user is defined by three key features.
First is the content that they post, which will have been built up over time. We have already discussed the burden of permanence above, but it’s worth noting that the mechanism here allows you to check a user’s overall consistency (in self-portrayal, and in activity). You, as a poster, must in turn make sure your personal narrative is consistent or at least has a narrative arc.
Second, each user has an opportunity to define themselves via their bio (in less than 150 characters!). To boil down our identity as a whole in the space barely greater than a tweet is impossible. So what do people do? The easy options are to reduce yourself down into platitudes and quotes that may offer a glimpse into your personality, but not the whole picture. So which aspect of our personality should we choose to exemplify here? Whatever you choose, you’ll need to make sure it is consistent with the sort of content that you’re posting. Writing bios used to be a difficult task reserved for those who had essentially established a solid foundation for their identity , and needed only present on one specific aspect of it — book authors, conference presenters, and performers in their playbills. But, now everyone has the option and social pressure to write one and define themselves. At least it’s optional.
Lastly are the three bolded numbers displayed prominently at the top of their profile — their number of posts, their number of followers, and the number of users they’re following. These three figures act interestingly as a proxy for your social status, not just how active you are on the site. If you lived a boring life, you wouldn’t have that much interesting content to post, so your post count would presumably be relatively low. The number of followers you have is an indication of whether you are a ‘leader’ that others view as worth following. And the number of users you follow accentuates your number of followers; If the ratio is even, it appears that you and X many people follow each other, forming symmetric relationships. However, if you have significantly more followers than followees, it gives off the impression that even strangers are interested in your life and the content you put out. Thus, a high number of posts and followers, with a low number of followees, seems to act as a measure for how interesting of a person you are.
All that from three numbers.
Then, on each piece of your posted content, you can see a count of how many people have liked the post, and how many have commented on the same.
All of these 5 kinds of numbers, if only visible to yourself, would be harmless, as they cannot be compared to any baseline. This is not the case on Instagram, unfortunately; when viewing your own profile, the view is almost identical to the page we get when viewing others’ profiles, serving as a perfect primer for social comparison. We can see how others perceive us, and how our numbers stack up against theirs’. We take note of how clever, topical, and funny all-while being self-deprecating their bio might be, in contrast to whatever we have written. Instagram, by design, is ripe for social comparison.
Snapchat’s approach and scope of quantification is markedly different.
As far as I know, there are only three pieces of quantitative information visible when using Snapchat, and users don’t have the option /burden of defining themselves via a bio because that features imply doesn’t exist.
The three quantitative bits are your “snap score,” your “streak,” and if you post a story, the number of people who have watched it.
Snapchat keeps the meaning of your “score” intentionally ambiguous. In short, it’s based on the number of snaps you’ve sent and received, but there is no label or explanation provided in the app itself. To find the explanation above you must go through Snapchat’s support pages, where even there there’s no satisfactory explanation — it’s simply a “special equation.”
What are users supposed to do this number? We can find out our friends’ snap scores by swiping right on a conversation we have with them. Still, because there is no label or explicit meaning attached to it, it seems to diminish any potential detrimental, comparative effects.
Your snap “streak” is the number consecutive days during which you and your conversation partner have sent each other a snap.
This serves as an indication of the length of the relationship that you’ve maintained over Snapchat with this person. Because it is displayed next to emojis (whose meaning is, again, intentionally dubious) which fuzz its meaning, and because we cannot see the streaks that our friends have with other users, we cannot ascribe a clear meaning to these numbers. Thus, the potential for social comparison as a result of these numbers is diminished.
Last is the number of users who have watched your snap story.
Here again, we are given a numeric description about our app usage, but it’s difficult to judge what this number means regarding our social standing or the quality of our content as we cannot compare it against the number of views that other users get. There are two features that add to this effect; First is the fact that when you view a story, you add to the view count before you make a judgment about the quality of the content, and you will have added to the count even if you do not like the content. Second, because stories disappear in 24 hours, if your number is low it’s easy to attribute that to your followers not using the app and missing the opportunity to have watched it, rather than seeing the content but not liking it, as is the case in Instagram.
Overall, on Snapchat it’s impossible to judge how you’re doing relative to other people, as there are no hard figures that would indicate such a ranking. Instead, the snap streak shows you how well you’re doing with someone in maintaining said streak, and your story’s view count just how many people have chosen to view your story, not the number of people who have liked your story.
Initial App Interaction
Let’s compare what menu we are shown when we initially open both apps, as a proxy for what sorts of interactions the applications primarily expects and wants its users to engage in.
On Instagram, the primary page is the feed comprised of the content that the users we follow have posted. This framing forces Instagram to be inherently consumptive and, as a result, comparative; We see how well ‘liked’ their content is and what they’re up to. The center of attention is on our friends, as scrutinize what they have posted and determine whether it is worth a like.
In contrast, Snapchat opens to the camera page, prompting us to take a photo or video of our own before viewing others’ pictures that they have sent us or put on their stories. This is exactly the opposite of the flow that Instagram nudges us to do — instead of judging other users’ content, we must first create our own, and the onus is on us to tell a story about what we are doing.
Photo Taking and Editing
We should now consider the central activity of both applications, the taking, editing, and sharing of photos and how each app’s different design decisions shape our perspective of the work we have created.
On Snapchat, the user flow looks like the below:
Once we take a photo using the circle at the bottom of the screen (image 1), we can optionally style the snap using the tools in the top of the screen (2), then choose to whom we’d like to send the photo to, send it (3). In the simplest use case, our right thumb can live in the bottom-right of the screen, allowing for the entire transaction to occur in less than 5 seconds.
The flow on Instagram is quite different, requiring much more involvement of our digits:
In this case, the optional edits don’t seem so optional — as soon as we take a photo, we are presented with the menu for possible filters we could apply to our photo, along with the tab for possible edits modifications we can make therein.
By making editing photos easier, taking place where the user’s thumb already is, the app subtly nudges photo editing to be the default behavior. Why shouldn’t we filter the image? It’s right there! By displaying filter previews, the app shows us what the image could look like, and how much better it could be with a filter applied. It’s as if the photo, on its own, is not good enough. Exacerbating this effect, another consequence of the photo editing menu taking up the bottom half of the screen real-estate is that it becomes difficult to hit the next button — it’s all the way at the top right of the screen, a region impossible to reach from the one-handed grip that users use when interacting with their phones a plurality of the time.
If you do decide to add a filter to your photo, Instagram offers you a selection of 23 default selected filters to look through (with an optional 17 more that can be added via settings for a total of 40!). Snapchat, on the other hand, offers only 4 actual “filters,” and 8 additional overlays that add graphical icons indicating things like my location or speed. While the wider array of choice Instagram offers may initially seem to be better, empirical research finds that the abundance of choice is actually associated with lower sentiment about our chosen option and increased regret; while having more choice may lead us to actually having better outcomes, the search costs involved with evaluating which of the outcomes is the best and the possibility of better alternatives leaves us less happy than if we had fewer options.
I’ll deliberately avoid comparing the editing mechanisms that Snapchat offers and the Snapchat drawing / face filter mechanisms, as they seem incomparable for the sake of this post.
When you’re done editing a photo, in Snapchat all there is to do is to decide whom to send it to, and whether to post it on your story. If you think a photo is only relevant to one person, or you’d prefer to not depict this particular image of yourself to everyone who follows you, you have the option and freedom to decide here, without overarching self-image concerns. On Instagram however, you have the the option (or obligation?) to add the caption, geotag, and tag people — to add a narrative to the story. It’s as if your photo on its own isn’t good enough, even after all the editing you were supposed to have done, and needs to be embellished with a holistic story.