I use a lot of apps, but there are only a few that I open every single day, and over the past few months Snapchat has become one of those elite few for me. If you told me this back in January, I wouldn’t have believed you and probably would have laughed at the idea too. Why the drastic change in opinion of Snapchat? Well, I eventually signed up when a few of my friends convinced me to, but my usage really skyrocketed with the launch of their (relatively) recent feature called ‘Our Story’. But first, an explanation of Snapchat and how it has rapidly evolved into a number of different features.
Snaps: At its core, Snapchat is all about sending pictures or videos to other people with Snapchat. These can only be viewed once and disappear after a few seconds (1–10 seconds) or after the video (can only be a maximum of 10 seconds) has finished playing.
My Story: This feature lets users save their Snaps so that they can be viewed by any of their friends for 24 hours. It may not seem like much but this allows users to create a kind of narrative to their day and share it with all of their friends. Unlike most other aspects of Snapchat, you can re-watch a friend’s ‘My Story’ as many times as you want, but each Snap that is a part of the Story will expire after 24 hours.
Chat: This is a prety standard messaging platform that lets you send text messages to your Snapchat friends, with the (to be expected) limitation that they can only be viewed once.
Our Story: This feature allows people at various high profile or interesting events across the world to submit their own Snaps to be included in an ‘Our Story’ event which can be viewed by anyone with Snapchat. I’ll go into more detail below.
When I first saw the news about ‘Our Story’ I wasn’t really sure why they were doing it – why would I care about the Snaps that a random person was sharing, at an event halfway across the world that none of my friends were going to? The appeal of Snapchat to most people is because it is personal. It’s an easy and seamless way to share photos or short videos between friends, so that even if you aren’t near them, you can still share your everyday experiences with each other. But by its very definition, Our Story would seemingly be impersonal and disconnected from anything that mattered to you.
There is an element of truth to those assumptions, but Our Story is great for a different reason – it draws you into the event, giving you a real sense of what it is like to be there. And the key word there is real:this isn’t some highly produced video promoting the event or even a news report from a local TV station – these are Snaps from people at the event, sharing their personal experiences. But I guess most importantly, these Our Story snaps are entertaining and interesting.
A big part of that is because Snapchat does curate Our Story events. From hours and hours of footage that is submitted, they feature just a few minutes of footage. And I think for the most part they have got the balance right, because you want to feature enough Snaps so that you really get a feel for what the event was like from a variety of perspectives, but not have so many snaps that it becomes tedious to watch.
For those of you who haven’t yet watched a Snapchat Our Story yet and are hopefully somewhat intrigued, I’ve embedded a few of them below.
Examples of Snapchat Our Story Events
Melbourne Cup (Australia) - 4 November 2014
Bonfire Night (UK) - 5 November 2014
Dog Show in Philly (USA) - 15 November 2014
(Editor's note: Apologies for the lack of audio in this video)
Could Our Story events cover serious news events?
Snapchat has done well in ramping up the number of Our Story events they have and I hope they continue to add more events. But the other aspect to this is that I hope they expand it beyond just covering the happy and cheerful music festivals, college football games and the quirky Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival or Dog Show in Philly.
I’ll be dissapointed if this is all that Our Story ever is, because I think there’s a bigger role it can play. Think back to Twitter in its early days when it was seen by many as a bit bizarre and meaningless, tweeting about what you were doing or what you ate for breakfast. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with using Twitter for that, but as time has passed it has become clear that Twitter is an incredibly powerful medium for news to be shared (look at any breaking news event or its role in the Arab Spring). Snapchat, too, could evolve into something more than just a tool to send selfies.
hey @Snapchat do an 'our story' feed from the events tonight in #Furguson there won't be any drunk college kids there but it still matters
A lot of these thoughts were triggered by the above tweet. Now, I’m not someone who thinks citizen journalism can replace serious reporting, but I think it can play an incredible role in complementing the work that reporters do. Just imagine if the millions of Snapchat users, in a news-worthy event, such as the reaction to the Grand Jury decision in the death of Michael Brown, could be featured in an Our Story event.
There would of course be challenges in covering serious, controversial, politically-charged events, breaking news, and emergencies. Most specifically, the curation process becomes very difficult and so far Snapchat hasn’t been willing to delve into these waters.  But covering serious news events is always difficult and I think there is genuinely something interesting that Snapchat could bring to the table. Besides, is there any doubt that people in such situations are not already using Snapchat and sharing their stories with their friends?
A quick word on The Verge and Snapchat
There are a bunch of organizations and brands that have also been using Snapchat to engage with their fans. Essentially, they use a normal Snapchat account and create My Stories that are visible to everyone that follows them.
I’ve only followed a small handful (namely The Verge, LACMA and AFL) and the one I’ve enjoyed the most has been The Verge. They aren’t always consistent with their use of Snapchat (although that’s gotten better) but they have been the most prolific at using it – of those that I follow. They’ll tease upcoming features, share screenshots of big news that has been posted on the website and just general behind the scenes stuff. Oh, and a little thing called ‘Beef or Bust’.
It certainly wouldn’t be for everyone, but I’ve really enjoyed watching their Snaps – particularly on days when I don’t read every article in my RSS reader. I’m also someone that enjoys watching all the DVD extras, so I love any behind the scenes stuff that they share.
Random Tip for iOS Snapchat users
It’s a little known feature but with iOS 8 Snapchat added a Share Extension that allows you to take a Snap from a saved photo or video from your Photos app.
This was one of my favorite Our Story events, but unfortunately I didn’t record it. ↩
At a Vanity Fair summit last month, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel did actually mention that there was internal debate over whether to create an Our Story feature for the Hong Kong protests but decided against it. Spiegel said that “we didn’t feel like pushing these photos and videos out would turn that atttention into action that would be helpful in Hong Kong”. ↩