A millennial returns to Snapchat

I downloaded the OG Story app for the first time in five years.

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If you saw me accidentally post a blurry picture to my Snapchat Story this morning, no you didn’t. (No, really. You probably didn’t.) —Kate

I came into this prepared to write a totally different piece. Over the past few months, Snapchat has reemerged alongside Pinterest in unexpected headlines about user growth. Snapchat’s daily users increased to 293 million, topping Twitter’s 206 million and marking one of its steepest growth curves (23 percent) in four years. Just yesterday, Axios reported that Snapchat’s “Snap Map” of New Orleans received 12 million views as Hurricane Ida hit the state and users documented the destruction.

I love a good comeback story, so for the first time in five years, I downloaded Snapchat and posted to my Story. I was ready to write a playful piece a la this Facebook stunt that was equal parts humor and nostalgia. Instead I spent 24 hours in a barren social media time capsule featuring the sparse dregs of my 2016 self.

At first it was thrilling. Thinking I was about to unlock a trove of past memories, I eagerly started exploring. But only a few of my old Snaps remained (they were mostly of my late cat and selfies taken on nights out). I had four friends left on my Snap Map, and only one had posted to their Story. Below that were endless Stories from unfamiliar media companies with headlines like “Our Son Stopped Growing Aged 1 - He’s Now 26” and “Full Back Wax In One Shot.” The Spotlight tab—Snapchat’s answer to TikTok’s For You Page—kept only showing me car content, for some reason. 

I don’t think the headlines are wrong, of course. Just because my peer group doesn’t use it anymore doesn’t mean it’s not popular with others—in fact, it's been home to entire scandals. I’m sure there are thriving communities and conversations happening just outside of my reach. But rather than giving me FOMO, diving back into Snapchat was an eerie reminder of why I left it.

Thanks to the Cloud, my Snapchat remained frozen in time at the exact moment I decided to leave. When I went to add to my Story while out and about yesterday, I received a notification: Cellular data was disabled. I could only use Snapchat on WiFi. I remembered exactly why this was the case. Even five years ago, I was aware that something bad was happening in my brain thanks to social media. In an effort to spend more time off of it, I had made it so I could only use Snapchat when I was home, rather than out with other people. 

Here’s an excerpt from the first Embedded paid post, in which I talk a bit about this:

The first app I ever deleted was Snapchat. I used it most in the years immediately after my college graduation, filling my Story with photos of meals out and the midtown high-rise where I had my internship, plus updates on my apartment decor. The content was calculated to hide any whiff of the loneliness and uncertainty that actually plagued my everyday life. I knew very few people in the city and rather than going straight into an office full-time, I made my income through a mix of internships and retail gigs. I turned my questions (“Is this okay? Am I doing it right?”) into statements (“My life is good. I’m doing everything right”) by carefully curating my pictures and videos, which I then checked every 10 seconds for the validation I got from the view counts. I was trying to prove to myself as much as everyone else that things were okay.

I don’t remember the exact breaking point, but I’m proud of my younger self for doing with Snapchat what my older self is unable to do with apps like Twitter. 

My recent experience on Snapchat is also a reminder that, for all the talk about social media taking over real life, its success is predicated on IRL communities getting on board. The internet is not real life, but an expression of it. If you decide to opt out, don’t worry. You’re not really missing anything at all.