The Secret Behind Snapchat’s Success

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Sharing. Whether it’s photos, videos, or written messages, every day it seems like a new app crops up offering another way to share your life with friends and followers. Most of these downloads never find a spot on smartphone users’ homescreens, but a select few hit the big time. And while there’s no secret recipe as to what makes a stellar sharing app, there are some qualities that entice you to stick around — and keep coming back.

Design, usability, and purpose are key, plus a little luck when it comes to timing (some ideas are a little before their time, while others are just tired and overdone).

Have you ever wondered why you’re so addicted to that new video texting app? Here’s what’s happening.

How Easy It Is To Start Using
The first thing about apps such as Snapchat is how easy it is to get going. You open it, and with one tap, bam! — you can start recording video. That single tap-to-record doesn’t give you a chance to second-guess what you want to do, which encourages spontaneity.

With other apps like Periscope and Instagram, it takes around three taps — still super easy, but it’s enough of a difference that it affects what type of content you decide to show.

The Perspective
Great new apps don’t just rehash what’s already out there with different buttons and filters. They look at what’s already happening, and not happening, in the space, and take a unique perspective. Take Snapchat’s ideas on social photography, for example:

“The way to understand photography as it happens on social platforms is not to compare it to traditional photography, which is about creating an art object, but instead as a communicating of experience itself,” Snapchat researcher Nathan Jurgenson wrote on the company’s blog in 2014. “It’s less making media and more sharing eyes; your view, your experience in the now.”

That perfectly explains why sending a Snap feels so different, and so much more personal, than just sharing a photo or video on a social network.

It’s less making media and more sharing eyes; your view, your experience in the now.

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.

Yahoo’s just-launched app Livetext takes a completely different approach.

Yahoo senior director of product management Arjun Sethi told Refinery29, “We wanted to focus on: You’re video chatting with the people that are most important to you, how can you do that more frequently in your daily life, where you don’t have to worry about interrupting anything else that you're doing?”

Since audio is the primary prohibitor in deciding which situations are okay for video chatting or not, Livetext made a sound-free app that fuses video and written chats. Sethi says the app lets you "express what you’re really feeling, and at the same time have another individual laugh back. That creates an augmented conversation to what you’d normally have."

And with Periscope, you're not just viewing someone's stream or sharing your own (which has been around for awhile) — you're interacting with it. By sharing comments in real time, creators and viewers interact to create more than just a video.

Limiting The Experience
"Limitations actually really help your creativity. You have to think outside the box," Snapchat celebrity Shaun McBride (better known as Shonduras) told Poynter. "There are ways that you can make your content unique and make it pop from the other people creating the content on your same platform."

With Vine, you've got six seconds to share what's happening; on Instagram, 15 seconds. With Meerkat, your livestreams are ephemeral; with Periscope, they can live a day. By setting some significant boundaries to what an app does, app makers can turn what could be considered a negative into a unique source of inspiration — and a compelling reason to use the app in the first place.

And then there's how the media is shared — how it's presented. Snapchat's Jurgenson writes:

“An image becomes a photograph, in part, by having borders. The frame makes the photo. Tellingly, a Snapchat usually exists unframed, full-screen, more moment than an art object.”

All the most popular video-sharing apps these days don't limit the experience to a TV or photo frame-type box. They live unframed, taking up most (if not all) of your phone's screen.

For Livetext, Sethi says Yahoo built it so that there was "enough video for the emotional connection," while typed-out messages are still easy to see. The app lays bold-print text over the video stream; the text disappears a few moments after it's written. "We started off very similar to speech bubbles, where it would be at the bottom and wouldn’t take away from the video — Video had to be the core of the experience," Sethi said. But with early users holding the phone further away from their faces than when they would text, it became apparent a different solution was needed.

One quality that seems to ring true of all the most popular video-sharing platforms these days: Authenticity.

"On Snapchat it's very difficult to make things appear different than how they actually are, while on other platforms there are seemingly unlimited ways to alter the content that you post,"Jacob Catalano, founder of the Snapchat story-aggregating Story Star app, told Refinery29. Catalano says that in a way, when you watch a snap, you step into the eyes of the person who created it, so inauthenticity doesn't translate well on the platform.

When it comes to sharing video with friends, people want to capture what's actually happening, and relay it in a way where you know it hasn't been doctored (which seems to be completely different from what we want out of our carefully cropped, meticulously touched-up photo-sharing apps).

These five tenets aren't necessarily a recipe for success. But maybe they will give us a hint as to which app will go supernova next.

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