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Selfies, streaks, and stories

I’m trying to get some reading done and somehow keep being distracted by the bright glow of my phone screen — Snapchat’s little yellow ghost taunting me with mystery pictures and chats. Sighing resignedly, I open my phone and view the snaps: selfies from my friends at different colleges, a chat from a high school friend desperately asking for college advice, and a depressing picture of the rain I’m trying to avoid from a fellow Stanford student.

I withheld from the Snapchat frenzy for as long as I could. In high school, I’d watch friends snapping selfies of themselves to send to people sitting across the table from them, and I wondered what the point was in this type of social media. I could text my friends — why did I need a separate app just to send them pictures of myself? But I confess, I’m completely addicted now.

Snapchat just seems to have it all: the ability to show friends what you’re doing, in the moment, with a built in texting feature to boot. One of my high school friends is so committed to our Snapchat streak that she had me give her my Snapchat password during my pre-orientation hiking trip so that she could snapchat herself from my account and maintain our many days of continuous snapping.

One of my favorite features of Snapchat are the Snapchat stories. These feeds from Snapchat allow me to stay updated on the lives of friends I don’t communicate with on a consistent basis, making it feel like I still know what their life is like. Beyond just the stories of friends, to me, one of the coolest parts of Snapchat are the Live stories, which are different each day and allow people from around the world to submit their own individual experience to be a part of a larger story.

To me, this feature is a really powerful tool for connection, allowing us to experience the realities of people living in vastly different environments. I have always loved collections of short stories, because they bring together many different narratives into one larger work. There is beauty in both the individual stories and the whole that is created by amalgamating the pieces. Live Stories are a technological form of this phenomenon: They bring together many different people’s experiences into one larger whole. The topics of these Stories can be anything: from featuring different people’s experiences at a music festival like Coachella to cool skiing videos.

One of the most powerful Live Stories I saw was the feed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with the prompt, “What is your dream for the future?” Individuals sent in videos of themselves with an array of answers, from “More love. More truth. Less pain. Good news,” to “Whether race, preference or gender, we are all equal.” A particularly powerful video featured a young man who said, “We’re all atoms at the end of the day; I just have more pigment than you do. So, love me. I love you. Let’s embrace each other.”

Live stories can carry the depth and weight of the one from MLK day, but they can also simply be entertaining portraits of regular people going through their everyday lives. That is the beauty in this feature of Snapchat: No matter the topic of the feed, the diverse responses bring together a great number of voices. Through this feed, we can vicariously experience others’ realities.

Recently, there has been talk about the potential for new technologies such as virtual reality in opening our eyes to the experiences of those around us and perhaps helping to elicit more empathy for certain individuals. Because the individuals featured on Snapchat Live are generally fairly diverse (people of different races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations come together on one feed) viewers are exposed to many different perspectives, and this feature of Snapchat can be yet another way of creating empathy for people whose lives may be quite different from our own.

Ultimately, this feature of Snapchat serves as a way to feed our curiosity about what other people are doing or what they believe about a certain topic. Along with the other features of Snapchat, the Snapchat Live function allows for connection, but with a much larger group of people, reminding us that humanity is vast and diverse. Snapchat’s ingenuity is in the many different needs it satisfies: connecting with our close friends and family through photography and messaging, staying updated on the lives of loose acquaintances, as well as feeling connected to a larger world.
Contact Julie Plummer at jplummer ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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