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Snapchat Wins Because You Have No Attention Span

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Andy Smith via Getty Images
Andy Smith via Getty Images

What makes Snapchat so addictive, according to the standard refrain, is that it lets people send incriminating pictures guilt-free. Instead of us being self-destructive, it's the messages that self-destruct.

But for many Snapchatters, the appeal of the photo-sharing app lies somewhere else entirely: Snapchat forces focus.

We don't know how long we’ll have to look at the pictures delivered to our phones, but we do know we’ll lose them soon. Once we've opened them, they stick around for seconds, nothing more. Checking Snapchat gets us to eliminate distractions and, for a few moments, commit our undivided attention to a single task. Not even our boyfriends or babies are so compelling.

These ephemeral messages have proved so irresistible that both Apple and Tinder last week unveiled their own Snapchat-style clones. That's in addition to the half-dozen ephemeral messaging apps that have debuted since Snapchat's 2011 founding.

On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Secret, we gawk at a never-ending, constantly-updating feed -- a string of updates with a name that, unintentionally but appropriately, calls to mind the troughs of slop shoveled to livestock. The feed is mass content, presented en masse. Snapchat, by contrast, seems like the closest thing the Internet has to artisanal-style “small batch” goods: an imperfect but hand-made creation offered to a few people in a mini serving size that won’t last. The fact that we use Snapchat to show sides of us we shield from other social sites only makes the app more engaging.

I know this because I am a Snapchat hoarder. When I receive a snap, I don’t look at it. I silently congratulate myself on having friends who choose to communicate with me, I put down my phone and I wait. It might be hours, or it could be days. The snaps start piling up. Once I’m alone someplace very quiet, with nothing at all to do, I take out my phone, bring my face very close to its glowing screen and stare at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it missives that I’ve temporarily been offered. Nothing can pull me away.

I’m not alone in this routine. Danah Boyd, a researcher at New York University and author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, made a similar observation in her time studying the tech habits of American teenagers.

“In a digital world where everyone’s flicking through headshots, images, and text without processing any of it, Snapchat asks you to stand still and pay attention to the gift that someone in your network just gave you,” Boyd wrote earlier this year. “Rather than serving as yet-another distraction, Snapchat invites focus.”

For apps like Tinder and Snapchat, the undivided attention their ephemeral messages attract could be a valuable pitch to the advertisers these still-unprofitable startups might choose to woo. Past social media services have focused on quantity, such that he who has the most people (and data) wins. But these services, if they maintain our interest, could compete on slightly different terms. They’ll not only claim more of us -- by adding additional members -- but they’ll also have more of a claim on us. Already, Snapchat, which reportedly turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook, is worth an estimated $4 billion.

The traditional Silicon Valley model, perfected by Google, Apple and others, has sought to hang on to us by stockpiling more and more of our information, from music to emails. The success of Snapchat suggests the new prototype could be the opposite: We stay wherever we know the content will vanish.

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