Snapchat changed the game with its playful Lenses, which let anyone puke rainbows or transform themselves into Coachella-ready flower goddesses. Now, the app is introducing users to another major innovation that will put Snapchat on the map in a far more literal sense.
Snap Map, which debuts today, is an entirely new screen on Snapchat that shows you where your friends are, where the most Snaps are coming from at any given moment, and what's happening around the globe — in real time. This is not just Find My Friends 2.0.
"In a lot of ways, we're taking what a map is and turning it upside down," Jack Brody, a product designer at Snap, told Refinery29. "This map isn't about where am I, it's about where are my friends and what are they up to? It's not about figuring out how to get to your destination, but about discovering where you want to go."
When you open the updated app, you'll be walked through a series of onboarding steps which will show you how to get to Snap Map: From the main camera screen, simply pinch your fingers together, then the app will ask you to choose from among three visibility options. If you don't want your location to show up on screen, you can go into Ghost Mode. If you only want your location to be visible to select friends, choose those users. If you don't care which of your friends see you, you can select all.
The Snap Map itself looks like a more playful, Disney-fied version of Google Maps. It's populated with your friends' Bitmoji (if someone doesn't have a Bitmoji, an outline of a person will appear instead) showing where they are at any given time if they have the Snapchat app open. The app only updates a user's location and timestamp on Snap Map when they open it.
While it's fun to see where friends are IRL, that information isn't as meaningful without a bit of context. The genius of the Map — in addition to showing you where your friends are — is that it also shows you where Snaps submitted to the collaborative "Our Story" are coming from. The more Snaps there are coming from one region, the more likely there's a special event, such as a big concert, or, a newsworthy moment occurring.
These moments are indicated by "heat" locations, spots of color on the map like the ones meteorologist use for weather forecasts. The redder a location is, the more Snaps there are coming from that spot. If a Beyoncé concert is happening, you'll probably see it on the heat map. There are also thumbnails featuring Stories that have been organized around a specific event or theme.
According to Brody, there's strong evidence that Snapchatters have been wanting a way to let friends know where they are via the app. "Interestingly, one of the habits we've seen with our users is that they'll take a snap where they are, put on the geofilter, and post it to their story with a caption like 'hit me up,'" Brody said. "They're basically saying come hang out with me here. Then, when they leave there they'll delete that from their story." With geolocations on the map, your friends will know if you're still at the beach, without you needing to update your Story.
Another benefit of the Map is if you see a friend is nearby an event, you can tap their Bitmoji to immediately start chatting with them to get all the details. "This is about layering relationships [with friends] on top of what is happening in the world," Brody explains. "It gives you more context on what your friend is up to. If I see a friend is at the Forum, I don't just see she's there. I see she's there and The Weeknd is performing. It triggers conversations that you wouldn't otherwise have had."
There is a playful purpose to Snap Map, but the tool also has the power to break news in the same way that Twitter does. On one of the first occassions that the Snapchat team tested out the Map function, in February 2016, a crane collapsed in New York. "Our Story" submissions immediately started popping up in Manhattan. According to Brody, these came in before police and media had even showed up on the scene.
"That was this moment of 'we have something here,'" Brody said. "We had newsworthy content 10 minutes before the first news company actually arrived."
In addition to breaking news, there's one more leisure element to the Map. Since you can look at Stories happening in any location around the world, you can use it to explore a potential vacation spot, do some travel planning, or just to satisfy your wanderlust from the office. While Snapchat Search, a feature launched earlier this year, does feature Stories from around the world, the Map provides an easier, and more visual, representation of where these Stories are coming from.
"There's definitely the aspect of where are my friends and what's happening around them, but then there's a greater aspect of what's happening globally," Brody told Refinery29. "There's something really powerful about seeing the diversity, but also the similarity of snaps around the world."
This piece was originally published on June 21, 2017.