You’re Invited on My Journey Towards Understanding Snapchat


feature image via Snapchat.

I am your technology columnist. I teach an undergraduate course on social media for writers — hell, I came up with this course, I made it myself. And still, deep in my soul, I do not understand Snapchat. My fiancée is ONE YEAR YOUNGER than me and she does. I use it mostly to send and receive photos of my cats, and usually only with my fiancée because she’s the one who sent something to me. This has led me to calling it Snapcats. She also showed me how to get the weird faces on my face (press and hold my face while taking a selfie).

I think my resistance to it is the ugly, clunky interface and tacky output aesthetic. I want clean and bright, not a cluttered throwback to the early web with its blinky text and spinning klip art. I might not have minded this a few years ago. The line between 27 and 28 seems like an arbitrary line, but I think we found it — 28 is my lower limit for “too old to interact with Snapchat.”

Except I do not accept this. I love new internet toys, and this one ain’t even new. I think it’s time. I think I finally need to figure out Snapchat. This realization made me Google the phrase “Snapchat for Old People.” Here is what I found, and here is what I did with that information.

First find: “Snapchat for Old People,” by Tim Cigelske, the social media director of Marquette University. One of the mental hurdles I can’t get over is why I would want to share a grainy, cheesy version of a photo instead of a nice looking one on Instagram. In the helpful Etiquette section of this quick, five minute read, I found this sentence: “Snapchat was designed to share a more raw and vulnerable version of yourself.” Well okay. Perhaps that’s another reason for my resistance. I’m extremely calculated (most of the time — there have been a few slip ups) about what I share on the internet and how I share it. I’m also a writer — I save the raw and vulnerable parts of myself for longer works, usually of fiction to place some distance between me and it. Snapchat seems to be built originally for those less calculated — the photos and videos disappear after all — and more comfortable with bringing their entire selves to the internet. I bring my entire self to my journal. I think it’s just a difference in viewpoint — maybe that explains why I’m comfortable using Snapchat with my fiancée and almost no one else. But what I learned from this piece is that just because it wasn’t built that way doesn’t mean it can’t be used that way — this is all about how a University is using this in a calculated way to communicate with current and prospective students. So. If I weren’t already convinced I needed to know and use Snapchat, I am now.

Second find: “16 Things Old People Don’t Understand About Snapchat,” by Caitlin Scott. This one is on Cosmo and is basically making fun of me, so I didn’t learn as much from it. But I did learn that old and young have become nouns when I wasn’t looking. Fascinating!

Third find: “Is Snapchat Really Confusing, Or Am I Just Old?” by Will Oremus for Slate. Though this is a year old, the opening to this piece made me feel seen and heard — “There is no excuse, at this point, for a professional technology writer to be confused by Snapchat.” But it addresses some of the UI problems that I feel Snapchat DEFINITELY has. It’s also really funny and mirrors my exact bumbling when I open Snapchat. It also treated the impenetrability of the UI as almost a secret, coded young language. It’s part of the appeal, like a secret handshake. Which reminded me that, like any other language, the best way to learn it is to practice it. It also featured people admitting that, even though they use it, they find it cryptic as well, which was a comfort. It also introduced me to the concept of something called “Snapcash,” which I had to put out of my mind because it broke my brain and I need to focus on one thing at a time. While reading this, I used my “Story” for the first time and I tapped the settings gear to enable “Filters,” which requires location. I’m sure my phone will die even faster now.

Fourth find: “How Snapchat is targeting the over-35 crowd,” by Paresh Dave for the LA Times. This actually isn’t about using Snapchat as much as it is about Snapchat’s intentionally-mysterious billboards (yellow with the ghost logo) that make curious people turn to others and ask “wtf is that?” The olds (as I’m now understanding we’re called) ask the youngs or they ask Google, and the extra work to get a satisfying explanation is actually genius. It’s essentially assuring social marketing by deputizing everyone who’s in the know as a company spokesperson, something people are happy to do because people enjoy being on the inside. It’s fucking genius, actually. It’s about this time that I realized I had enabled “filters,” but I didn’t know how to use them. So then I had to Google “how to use Snapchat filters.”

Which brings me to my fifth find: “How to use Snapchat new features: Snapchat adds new face swap feature, Chat 2.0, Emoji stickers for video,” by Chris Martin for PC Advisor. Bless this post. Not only did it teach me how to use filters (swipe either left or right), it introduced me to features I didn’t know existed, like the ability to pin Emoji to a video and it moves around with you (I used this for literal heart eyes, which I will not include here because I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SAVE THIS VIDEO TO MY PHONE LALALALA). Did you know Snapchat has video and audio calling as a thing that can happen? I DIDN’T EITHER. You can also reply to specific snaps in your friends stories by swiping up from the bottom while it’s playing. There’s also a trophy case (swipe down and tap the trophy at the top of the screen) and y’all know how much I love badges. While reading, I spontaneously figured out how to change how text captions look (cycle through by pressing the T button after you take a photo).

My sixth find, “Snapchat Now Lets You Send Money To Friends Through Snapcash Deal With Square Cash,” by Josh Constantine for TechCrunch, is the direct result of my trying to unbreak my brain from earlier. WTF is Snapcash? It’s basically like Venmo, except it’s all done through Snapchat. Here is the video:

The other thing that broke my brain about this is that’s it’s been around since 2014 and I didn’t know about it.

And finally, Advanced Snapchat: make your own Geofilters. Yep. You can do that. I’m at AEOsworth, y’all. Come find me.

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.


  1. I’m with you. 28 years and I’m just starting to figure out this situation… and yes, all the fancy-pants Snap features drain my battery like whoa. I’ll add you– ?sarsquared

  2. I am 24 and everytime I download snap chat it says “enter your email address so that friends can find you!” but y’all

    I have a cryptic social media Email address specifically to Keep People From Finding Me

    No one has my Email

    My friends and I *do not use email*

    This mental block keeps me from moving forward and I Uninstall

    • At one point it didn’t have that feature, so I signed up with a cool username and forgot the password when I got a new phone.

      You could make a throwaway email and use a password manager for these things.

  3. whooah this is very useful! I was content before to just use snapchat to send pictures of food and check up on Tegan and Sara’s cat exploits, but now I have the tools to go out and snap the day

  4. 33 and equally baffled by the snapchat interface. So far I just use it to send ‘hey you should buy this’ grocery store pictures to a couple friends? I am super ok with being An Old, turns out.

  5. This is perfect timing! I installed snapchat 12 hours before turning my phone off for camp. Time to learn the things.

  6. 27 and a half and I just dont get the appeal?
    Downloaded it because its pretty much the only medium my 23 year old sister will reply on but I just dont like it. Its just so awkward to navigate…

  7. i am 35 and can’t ever imagine downloading this app. I am definitely an “old.”

  8. My phone is aged and decrepit, and stopped handling the new updates, or I’d jump right back in for you, friend.

  9. Oddly and interestingly enough, my five year old niece is adamant about calling it “mousetrap”.

  10. I have concerns about snapchat that stem from recent articles about how Snapchat is positioning its value in 2016, most notably as a live event feed or alternative way for brands to reach users.

    I don’t think it matches my professional values as a library and information scientist. Unless they’re archiving video and have plans to give it to the Library of Congress, I’m going to come out firmly against it because scholars in 100 years will be missing a lot of cultural ephemera that they could be using to write dissertations. Dissertations are hard, these future scholars need all of the help they can get, and the librarians in 100 years will be the ones who have to disappoint them if this data isn’t there. I do understand the point of Snapchat, though, and why people without my values might like it. I’d have to see a preservation workflow diagram at the very least before feeling comfortable with their live event stories even existing.

    On a personal note, one of the things I have done in recent years is to aggressively take back my time from clickbait. I remove all sounds/vibrations from most alerts, and I mute my phone while I work. The expiring feature on Snapchat — especially with the meta-stories and the content from NatGeo and other providers — is designed to suck people into the platform so they’re always checking. Instagram is great because I know that I can check my feed on my own time, and everything will probably still be there. Same goes with Facebook. I actually resent NatGeo and a lot of other companies I follow on Instagram because I am excluded from their Snapchat content due to being anti-Snapchat.

    • The flip side is that for most of human history we *don’t* have records of all the detritus of daily life. The invention of the internet has created this notion that it’s possible to record everything— but that’s extremely anomalous historically speaking. In this sense, what Snapchat and similar media are doing is reclaiming what has been lost in the transition to the panopticon. Communication is about more than just what is transmitted, it’s about knowing the limits of how far it will be transmitted and tailoring one’s message appropriately.

      While the loss of records may be unfortunate for historians trying to discover “what really happened”, surely any historian can appreciate how the retention of those records will have fundamentally altered the society in question. There will always be other media which bear imprints from the transient things we do not see. Just as refuse piles record eating habits, and fires record reusable clay tablets, so too will something record bits and pieces of what goes on in Snapchat. Though future historians may lament, I do not see their plight as being any different from all the rest of history.

      • OMG I love you for using the word panopticon <3 from one Foucault nerd to another !

      • Yes, that is an alternative opinion. However, as a librarian, my professional role is as an informationist, and those come with a lot of ethical values and buy-in. For example, I don’t agree with the right to be forgotten, but I do think that we need to expand our ideas of patient privacy (as articulated in HIPAA) to human privacy and develop systems that can support that. I’m also less concerned about individuals sharing on Snapchat and more concerned about the aggregated “stories” and other things that are marketed as Snapchat events that expire within a certain time frame hours. Those are made up of individuals doing things on Snapchat, but the Snapchat event coverage is larger than the sum of its parts. I agree that not every selfie is important, but the event coverage is just as important as preserving television news archives. ☺️

    • And why is anyone obliged to have their life, history, pictures be up for historical consumption? Is privacy not a value historians or librarians respect? Temporality?

      • Privacy is constructed differently in archival collections, usually through system user permissions. For example, at some libraries, people donate materials while their contemporaries are still living. Those can and do have access controls requiring notification before scholars can have access, on-site use only, restrictions on photography and digitization, and other permissions. Librarians do care about privacy, which is why many libraries don’t keep patron records of previously checked out materials (and thus cannot give you recommendations like Amazon does). It’s just not the same construction of privacy that people have outside of the profession. I am not an archivist and am more of a specialist in physical sciences scholarly communication, so I can’t speak to a lot of this with the same nuance as some of my colleagues in that subfield.

  11. My main reason for avoiding Snapchat so far has just been that it’s a whole extra thing. People keep saying to me “oh, you should get Snapchat”, but I already have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Until recently I also had Tumblr. I just don’t need another social media place to try to keep up with.

    • Too true! That social media trifecta is all that I need at this point and I don’t have the time or energy to worry about adding another one.

    • Same! Too much to keep up with and no desire to do so. I don’t even use my twitter account–I’ve had it since 2011 and I think I have made all of 4 tweets on it. Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram are more than enough for me.

    • Maybe it’s just having a good social media trifecta at any given time? I used to be a Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr user and then once I deactivated my Facebook I started transitioning more to Instagram and even though I still have my Twitter I don’t use it as much, usually using Snapchat instead for my quick/real-time interactions with people. Now I’m typically an Instagram/Snapchat/Tumblr user and that feels like it covers most of my social media needs.

  12. I don’t feel like I truly “get” Snapchat either but whatever. 50% of my snapchat experience is me+my sister exchanging chronic illness feels or good hair vibes, 40% of snapchat is me taking pictures with my pets or my friends’ pets if I’m at their house, 10% of my snapchat is drunken escapades (like snapchat was clutch in piecing together my NYE/NYD bender).

  13. Thank you for this article! I tried snapchat once and gave up. I’m going to try it again, give it a better shot.

  14. Just like you view Twitter and Facebook for different uses, it’s the same for Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram is for putting your best foot forward, selectively showing aspects of your life. Whereas Snapchat is for moments you want to share, but perhaps not forever. It’s silly and it’s fun, it’s not meant to be taken seriously.

  15. I squealed a little bit because I KNOW WHAT A LOWER LIMIT IS, been there passed that class yass.

    My generational score on the Pew Research quiz “How Millennial Are You?” put me somewhere between a Baby Boomer and Generation X, but uh I’m not even 25 yet.
    So if you Ali struggled with it then I wouldn’t even stand a chance not that it matters because inside I’m too old to care.
    However my aunt who is a legit Generation X person probably snapchats.

  16. I teach teenagers. They all seem to snapchat. (Can I use snapchat as a verb?) I have never used it and probably won’t, because I get the impression that people in my social circle don’t use it either – but I’m always keen to understand what on earth the kids are talking about, so thanks for pointing me towards helpful articles! :)

  17. I’m 25 – my close group of friends don’t use snapchat, so thank god I have no need for it because I have absolutely no idea. I watch my (22 year old) sister use it from time to time, and I’m good? Facebook and Instagram are enough for me.

  18. I’m 18 and though I use snapchat I still don’t exactly ‘get it’. I think it kind of depends what kind of person you are honestly.

  19. Heheh I thought the number one reason to use snapchat was for untraceable sexts / naked pics. For real, I read an article about it on Wired or something; supposed to be the best social app for that.

  20. I read an article at one point that suggested that this app was initially started by some frat guys with less than stellar initiations.

    And so, while I am only 23, I can’t get behind and support an app with those origins.

    (And, also, I don’t think there’s ever been a photo I took that I wanted to share so badly that I couldn’t private message to a friend.)

  21. I’m on the sunny side of 50 and couldn’t countenance using an implement of communication more likely to result in 5 wasted minutes trying to figure out why I needed to know this ‘thing’ now, as opposed to later, in person, over a glass of something calming. Besides which, the term snapchat reminds me too much of the term ‘snatch-pat’ which used to be a fairly vulgar term some guys used to describe their best efforts at picking up women in bars. The guys, like the snapchat programmers, were not that successful at meeting their own goals.

  22. 42. an answer to most questions, but definitely not to ‘what do i even do with freaking snapchat’.

  23. I’m 25, and I use Snapchat a lot. I don’t use it like a social media app, though; I use it as a messaging app. I find myself wanting to send pictures of things to people, and instead of clogging up my/their phone with a hundred pictures of random shit that probably doesn’t need to be revisited, it’s easier to just snap it. Also, the filters are fun, and I like when my friends feel good enough about themselves to take and send selfies.

    I do agree that the interface is extremely clumsy and hard to understand, though. Trying to explain it to @carolyn last night made me realize how bizarrely unintuitive it is.

    • I resisting getting snapchat for a while because I didn’t understand the point, but now I find that I like it a lot for exactly this reason. It’s great for telling a friend “look at this food I made!” or “I’m trying on this blazer, should I buy it?” or any number of trivial “this is what I’m doing right now” or “saw this, thought of you” moments that it’s fun to share but don’t feel Important enough to record and memorialize with an actual picture that will sit around taking space on phones forever.

  24. *22-year-old pitches response article titled You’re Invited to A Day in the Life of a Snapchat Addict*

  25. Thank you so much for writing this and providing links to other articles. I am supposed to run a snapchat for my office and have NO IDEA how to do it. I am 23 and completely flumoxed by it.

  26. I only just downloaded Snapchat after I realized so many people in my work cohort were using it. As an old, my learning curve has been steep and Sisyphean. I feel slightly better having read this article. I’ve also legit scheduled a tutorial with my younger housemate.

    • My brother and sister use it to send pictures of my nephew and I feel like i’m missing out but I absolutely hate snapchat! Like with a passion. When they send me cute pictures of my nephew they’re just gone a few seconds later… I have it so I can see their stories which include my nephew but I’ll never understand the attraction. I’m a happily cranky “Old” at 30 lol.

  27. I feel so conflicted about this! I’m 23, and my 22-year-old and 28-year-old sisters communicate solely through Snapchat, and while I’m completely left out of that, I just don’t feel like I’m missing that much! I had it a few years ago and used it for sexy purposes when a partner and I were in different cities, but its use seems to have totally changed from that. Are snaps still able to be private? Or is everything published somewhere? What is the point? Can we just be genuine with one another in other aspects of our lives? Bigger question:Am I ACTUALLY missing out on a cultural phenomenon by not using this? I don’t have any desire to use it, but is closing my door when people are trying to share parts of their lives with me really the precedent I want to set??

  28. I’m 22, or a young, as you might call me, and I use Snapchat a bunch. My personal highlights include a 6-day solo adventure in Toronto shared almost exclusively through my story; the most cathartic story I’ve shared in my life (about a particularly rude lady who tipped me $3 on a $65 ticket after I bent over backwards catering to her four small children); and a 218-day snapstreak.

    Really hoping that 23 is the turning point in my love affair with Snapchat, if only so I can gain some semblance of respectability in the adult world.

  29. My night job is Applebees, so at 27 im one f the oldest people there. I learned how to use snap chat quickly. BUT im so super jealous of the people who take videos of themselves talking into the camera. It takes something i dont have. Im SO AWKWARD. I sound awkward, look awkward. Its a mess. I want to be better at it though. I WANT IT SO BAD

  30. Two thoughts:

    1. this comment section is a delight.
    2. That video was very disturbing and also I absolutely don’t trust Snapchat’s security.

  31. I was pretty sure my (five years younger) ex had downloaded Snapchat in the last weeks of our relationship solely out of her compulsive need to highlight how we’d never meet on any level, and this article affirms everything I suspected.

  32. I’ve never been one for Snapchat. I can’t keep up with all these social platforms. BUT. I recently moved 3,000 miles away from my girlfriend of 3 1/2 years. While we’re doing this long distance thing for a while, I’ve discovered I actually like Snapchat a lot. She uses it extensively and I use it generally less BUT it’s a kind of more casual way for us to share little tidbits of our days. Also the story feature means I can see fun stuff she does without having to feel like I’m being overly intrusive asking every 5 seconds “WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW??”. It’s a more laid way to stay in touch in little ways in between bigger contact times like video chat or phone calls or whatnot.

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