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What is Snapchat? A beginner’s guide to ephemeral social media

You may have heard of or seen people using something called Snapchat, but if you’re unsure what it is or what it’s for, read on for enlightenment.

What is Snapchat - Ghostface Chillah

What is Snapchat?

Snapchat is a fun mobile messaging application that lets you share photos, videos, text and drawings that expire and automatically delete themselves after a set time, ranging from a few seconds up to 24 hours. It’s free to download and send messages using the service and it’s also become insanely popular with adults and teenagers alike. In truth, these are its core features, but over time it’s actually evolved to do a number of  other things too (which we’ll cover in a bit).

It’s available on devices running Google’s mobile operating system, Android or Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS – that translates to devices like Samsung’s Galaxy phones, Sony’s Xperia phones and iPhones to name but a few.

Read next: What is Android? and What is iOS?

What is ephemeral social media?

When proto-Snapchat app, Picaboo launched back in 2011, it offered a pretty radical proposition by comparison to established services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all of which centred around storing and preserving their users’ digital content.

Snapchat CEO, Evan Spiegel originally pushed the concept as a class project during his time at Stanford University, but it took the help of fellow students Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown to turn it into a functioning reality.

Snapchat’s biggest hook has always been its ephemerality, arriving just as the likes of Meerkat and Periscope were pushing live streaming, with the same focus on timely content that expires once it’s no longer relevant. Facebook has since pushed into live video and other apps like Beme have also appeared with a similar approach to Snapchat.

How does Snapchat work?

Photos and videos captured or viewed within Snapchat are known as ‘snaps’. You can send snaps to individuals (other Snapchat users you’ve either added from your device’s contact list or by manually inputting their Snapchat username) or to public channels called ‘stories’.

The Snapchat UI in action

If you’re sending a still image to another user, you can specify how long it can be viewed for (up to ten seconds), after which the recipient can choose to ‘replay’ it. However, users can only rewatch snaps once before they completely expire. Similarly, Snapchat lets you record up to ten seconds of video (with or without sound) that you can share – these are then accessible to the recipient in the same fashion as photos.

Whilst snaps are ephemeral, you can actually download your own snaps to your device as you create them and other users can take screenshots on their devices to capture stills of your snaps, but doing so pushes a notification to your phone, so you know they’ve made a copy of your snap.

Text, filters, drawing and stickers on Snapchat

You don’t have to post raw photos or videos with Snapchat, you can also jazz them up with text, filters, doodles and what Snapchat calls ‘stickers’. Tapping the ‘T’ icon at the top of the screen once you’ve captured a snap brings up a white on black text box that allows for up to two lines of centre-justified text, tapping it again turns it into larger, bold, left-justified text that you can scale, orient, reformat and even change colour. Tapping the text icon a third time changes that text from left to centre justified.

Snapchat text

Not unlike Instagram, you can also dress your snaps with different filters. You can add different colour overlays to photos, including a black and white filter, whilst video snaps can be dressed with motion filters; letting you slow down or speed up footage.

Geofilters in Snapchat

There is a third type of filter known as a geofilter, which only becomes available when your snap is taken at a specific location. As Recombu is based in London there are a number of geofilters with elements of the city woven into them, but geofilters can be found all over the place, even for specific events. Geofilters automatically appear alongside the conventional filters that you swipe through after you’ve captured your snap.

Sometimes you may want to highlight an element in your snap, write in a particular fashion or just add a doodle for fun – that’s where the pen tool comes in. Similarly to editing text, you can pick a colour and then draw over your snap (pro tip: Follow Snapchat user Miologie to see Snapchat doodles at their finest).

Snapchat filters 1 Snapchat filters 2 Snapchat stickers - animated

You can also add stickers to your snaps, which are essentially emoji symbols that you can scale, rotate and position anywhere within your snaps. You can even track stickers to points in your videos so that they move in sync with your snaps (see above).

Lenses on Snapchat

Another way to have a bit of fun with your snaps is by using lenses. If you press and hold on the viewfinder when a person’s face is clearly in-frame and facing the camera, you’ll see a wireframe mesh briefly appear before bringing up a host of different options near the shutter button.

Lenses can be flat or 3D overlays, designed to sit on or around your face. Some distort your face’s shape, some add virtual props like sunglasses and moustaches and some add special effects like fire or bubbles. When swiping between lenses, in some cases you’ll also be prompted to open your mouth or raise your eyebrows to activate an animation.

Snapchat lens 1 Snapchat lens 2 Snapchat lenses 3

Over time, the way in which Snapchat has implemented lenses has changed, but at the time of writing, all lenses are free and only occasionally change. Like geofilters, some lenses are location specific and only become available under certain circumstances.

In November 2016, Snapchat added World Lenses, which don’t require a face to be in-frame to work. By tapping on the screen whilst looking at the viewfinder you can add overlays that affect your environment, such as falling snowflakes or clouds that spew rainbows.

Snapchat World lens 1 World lens 2 World lens 3

Once you’ve applied a lens, you can then capture a still or video snap and share it as you would any other.

How do I use Snapchat?

Adding contacts

If you like what you see so far and decided to take the plunge and download Snapchat onto your smartphone a good place to start would be by adding your friends.

After creating an account and signing in, the app will open up on the main viewfinder, swipe downwards to view your profile page, here you can see other users who’ve added you, add users yourself and view your Snapchat friends (users you’ve already added).

Snapchat - viewfinder, Snapcode profile page, find friends

To add a user, tap ‘Add Friends’ and you’ll be presented with a number of options. If you know a friend’s username choose ‘Add by username’ after which you can type in your friend’s username to add them. ‘Add from Address Book’ lets Snapchat scan your phone’s contact list to see whether anyone in your address book is already a Snapchat user. If it finds users within your contact list you’ll be presented with a rundown of applicable friends that you can simply tap on to add.

‘Add by Snapcode’ lets you add a user by scanning a picture of their Snapcode from your phone’s photo gallery. Your profile picture is in fact, your Snapcode and it’s unique to you (you can also scan Snapcodes from the viewfinder by pressing and holding on the screen). The last option ‘Add nearby’ scans within your present location for other users also on the ‘Add nearby’ screen from within their Snapchat app.

Taking and sending snaps

Once you’ve added friends to share your snaps with, it’s time to actually take some. Capturing a snap is simple, open the app and by default, you’ll find yourself in the viewfinder. Tapping the big circular shutter key at the bottom of the screen (assuming you’re holding your phone in portrait – the preferred orientation for Snapchat) will capture a still image whilst holding it down will start recording video, indicated by a red bar that fills around the shutter button up to a total of ten seconds.

Once you release the shutter key, you’ll then have the chance to review whatever it is that you just captured. Videos loop during this review period and sound is played by default, but you can mute them by tapping the speaker icon in the bottom left of the screen (muted video snaps remain muted when shared too).

The review stage is also the point at which you might want to add filters, text or draw on your snap, which you can do using the tools we mentioned earlier. Once you’re happy with your Snapsterpiece (Snapchat’s word, not ours) your can share it by pressing the circular post button in the bottom right of the screen. You’ll then see any available public stories as well as your friends list and you can share to multiple people at once.

What are Snapchat Stories?

Earlier we mentioned stories, which let users review public snaps for up to 24 hours. When capturing a snap, instead of/as well as sending them to specific users privately, you can submit them to the ‘My Story’ feed. Here, your Snapchat friends can view all of the snaps you’ve submitted to your story in a continuous stream. There’s no limit on how many times users can rewatch your story either (until they expire that is).

Snapchat Stories can be submitted to your "My Story" feed

As well as stories for individual users, there are also collaborative stories called Live Stories. Similarly to geofilters, users can only submit snaps to these stories when they’re in the right location at the right time. As an example, London has a story that any Snapchat users in the area can post to (although there’s no guarantee that your snaps become publicly viewable), live stories like these also appear for specific events.

What is Snapchat Discover?

Snapchat Discover displays content from big media outlets

The same screen that displays users’ stories and live stories also features a ‘discover’ section. Here you’ll find content from big brands and media outlets specifically created for Snapchat. Discover channels deliver stories, news, entertainment and serve as the Snapchat equivalent of a dedicated news feed. You can watch a story on Discover for 24 hours before it is replaced by the next day’s coverage. The sources that supply discover stories can change over time and based on your location.

What else can Snapchat do?

You don’t have to send pictures and videos to your friends on Snapchat all the time. Once a private conversation has started you can continue the conversation like a more conventional messaging app, with standalone text or in the form of a video call if you prefer.

In the US, users also have access to a feature called Snapcash, where you can actually send real money to your Snapchat friends through the app, whilst users under the age of 13 can only access a restricted version of the app called SnapKidz, which lets them take photos and videos, apply filters, drawings, and stickers, but lacks the social sharing component of the standard app.

Snapchat ghosts

  • Fun fact, the ghost that appears on the Snapchat icon is called Ghostface Chillah, a play on rapper Ghostface Killah – a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
  • Each of Snapchat’s major updates is named after a famous ghost. At the time of writing, the most recent update was named Banquo.

You can download Snapchat for free on iOS here and Android here.

Last update (9/11/16): Added imagery information regarding what World Lenses are and how they work.