Instant messaging was a phenomenon in the 1990s: the ability to instantly communicate with another person in a different location, via a screen, was extraordinary. Or so I've been told. I was born in 1996 and straddle the millennial/Gen Z generational divide. I remember VHS tapes, floppy disks, and a time before social media, but I've always had access to the internet, MSN was the norm, and joining Facebook as a pre-teen was an essential rite of passage. For me, and the majority of my generation, interconnectivity is a normal part of life. Being able to contact someone at the touch of a button, or find an answer to a question in less than a minute is incredible, but it's also routine.
The more modern term in use, hyperconnectivity, has arisen from our interconnectedness becoming intensely more interwoven through the proliferation of different technologies we each use to communicate with each other and with businesses. Systems or machines themselves are also connected and can communicate and send data. This move from “inter” to “hyper” is significant—it connotes a shift from connection to an overload of connection. Robert Greenhill, former managing director and chief business officer of the World Economic Forum, stated back in 2012 that “this hyper-connectivity is deeply redefining relationships between individuals, consumers and enterprises.”
Being able to contact someone at the touch of a button, or find an answer to a question in less than a minute is incredible, but it's also routine.
Case in point: when Snapchat emerged in 2011, the instant messenger game shifted. Suddenly, images transferred with the same immediacy as a text message. Conversations became image-based: showing people your life rather than describing it. While it seems like sending a photo is saying less, images can at times communicate more. Photo conversations provide more context and a peek into your actual life—allowing insight into your home, friendships, and relationships. “Snaps” also prompted the rise of the selfie, the need to be constantly on show—and the necessity to find good lighting, angles, and backdrops to create the perfect “impromptu” snap.
Snapchat’s demographics are shifting
In the first quarter of 2019, Snapchat reported 190 million daily users (DAU), a number that has risen by 4 million DAU since the fourth quarter of 2018 and averted claims that Snapchat users were on the downfall. In fact, as of March 2019, Snapchat reaches 90 percent of all 13-24 year-olds in the U.S. Compared to other social media apps like Instagram and Facebook, this is a significant reach within a young crowd. Facebook reaches 32 percent, and Instagram reaches 27.9 percent of 25-34 year olds. These statistics indicate that Snapchat has the edge with Gen Z. This resonated with millennial Annabelle Akintoye, graduate consultant at Vodafone, who says, “I know initially people my age were very keen to keep Snapchat up, but now I do think it’s more of a Gen Z thing.”
Suddenly, images transferred with the same immediacy as a text message. Conversations became image-based: showing people your life rather than describing it.
It’s hard to say what this means or what affect this will have on the future of society, but while the novelty of snapchatting is fun and addictive, the instantaneous connectivity can also be invasive and creates pressure to post.
Snapchat’s introduction of Snapstreaks essentially monopolized on people’s addiction and further fuelled the need for friends to be in contact daily. Building a Snapstreak requires users to send a picture every day to a contact. The number of days that this streak is maintained displays next to that contact’s name with a fire emoji. Up until 2015, a user’s ‘best friends’—the people who they snapped the most—could be visible to the rest of the Snapchat community, including the two users’ streak number. But the number disappears when the streak is broken, and it’s over—almost like it never happened. This upset users, so Snapchat added an egg timer emoji to help prompt users to send a snap and continue the streak.
While the novelty of snapchatting is fun and addictive, the instantaneous connectivity can also be invasive and creates pressure to post.
In theory, Snapstreaks are fun, but as with any craze, they leave a bitter taste. There is an innate pressure to maintain the streak, enforced by the app itself, but also by the users. Competition ensues to see who can continue the streak the longest. The problem is that the string of connection becomes quantified, minimizing a relationship to the number of consecutive days of contact.
Quality over quantity
When communication is gamified and expected, the intent behind the conversation is altered. It becomes less personal and more functional. Josh McAlpine, age 23, states that he’s known people who have maintained streaks for over a year, but all they do is send a daily photo to each other with a black screen that says “streak.” Josh claims that “there’s no real logic to it,” as it almost defeats the point of the app as a whole. This is furthered by the fact that there are multiple videos online that show how to hack the app and regain your streak number, as well as videos of users crying because of a lost streak. These reactions may seem excessive but reveal how obsessive the trend can be. Annabelle says, “It seems ridiculous, but clearly it does affect people’s day-to-day life.”
When communication is gamified and expected, the intent behind the conversation is altered. It becomes less personal and more functional.
Snapstreaks are more than a messaging trend, because the ways that we use social media to connect also alter both millennials’ and Gen Z’s expectations from businesses. We have a desire, and an expectation, for companies to engage in a quick and efficient way, the same way in which we engage with each other. We're used to a breakdown in formality, both in the messaging medium used and the tone of voice.
While I rarely open the Snapchat app anymore, and in the past year have retained little interest in maintaining a snapstreak, between 2014 and 2017, I was hooked. It was a quick and easy way to maintain contact with school friends after parting ways for college, if also to prove that I was having an amazing time. But since graduating and entering “the real world,” I find that communicating via a simple text message, or the occasional Facetime, is a much easier and more relaxed way to have a conversation and maintain a friendship. We no longer count how many days we’ve talked, but we know we can always reach out—and the purpose is now often to organize a meet-up for dinner. For us generation-straddlers, it’s no longer about connecting for the sake of it, but connecting when there’s a reason to connect. And while our experiences in hyperconnectivity may be driving us towards more “old fashioned” ideals of communication, we still expect and desire efficient communication, from both friends and businesses. It’s the best of both worlds.
Anna is a recent graduate and is currently navigating “adulthood.” A freelance writer and avid reader, Anna is obsessed with cultural crazes and captivated by society of past and present. She can be found exploring historic houses, curled up in a coffee shop, or on a commuter train into London.