March 15, 2016

Cornell Researchers Study Snapchat’s Appeal

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Researchers from Cornell Social Media lab and ReImagination Lab have studied the social media application platform Snapchat in hopes of learning how its unique design features affect our relationships with technology and with each other.

The study, co-authored by Prof. Dan Cosley, information science, Prof. Natalya N. Bazarova, communication, Pamara Chang and Bin Xu, grad students and Christopher Welker ’18, found that Snapchat’s ephemerality contributed to its acting as a medium for everyday, informal communication between smaller, closer networks.

“Because of this feature of ephemerality, it allows people to be more informal, losing inhibition with content sent to close friends,” said Pamara Chang, a fifth-year PhD candidate and co-author to the study. “Whereas there’s this notion of impression management and self-presentation concerns with other applications like Facebook or Twitter where you do have a larger audience.”

Unlike originally text-based platforms like Facebook or Twitter, Snapchat is a mobile application primarily based in sending image and video content. Users can add friends and send photos or videos, called “snaps”, to whoever they select in their network. They can preselect a set amount of time between one and ten seconds that a recipient will be able to view the content before it auto-deletes. This feature highlights the unique transient design of the app and could explain its popularity, especially among college students.

In the study, researchers interviewed undergraduate students who were regular Snapchat users to see how this ephemeral feature of the app’s design would affect user communication. The short lived nature of content transmitted through the app affected the content people felt they could share.

Researchers found that people were more likely to share goofy, unfiltered content or content not related to tasks through Snapchat. In addition to set viewing windows and auto-deletion of content, users can see if and when the recipient has viewed the content, and if they took a screenshot of the content. The reassurance that content will quickly disappear permanently from both the sender’s and receiver’s phones appeases a user’s typical concerns of privacy when it comes to social media.

The study also found that the relatively small network on Snapchat versus that of Facebook or Twitter influenced user communication with similar effects.

“The network is a lot smaller, and a lot closer,” said Chang. “On larger platforms, you have this large diverse group of friends. On Snapchat, it’s very few and it’s very selected. It would be your closest friends rather than a larger network of professors and other students that you met once in a class.”

The study reflects that the app is most popular between close friends or romantic interests, that is, relationships that are close enough that both parties feel comfortable sharing everyday, mundane communication.

However, many users also enjoy the larger communities created by Snapchat’s location specific features like geographic filters or the Ivy League snapstory. The geofilters allow users to overlay snaps with a design indicating their location and the Ivy League story incorporates snaps from users across universities in the Ivy League.

“The stories are super fun,” Paroma Chakravarty ‘16 said. “I like to compete for the Ivy League story.” While these features are favorable components of the app, users do not feel as connected to larger communities included in these features as they do to their smaller networks of friends.

In sharing content rather than simply showing it, Snapchat’s design uniquely couples clear digital ownership and close feelings of connectedness. As Bin Xu, a fourth-year PhD. candidate in the department of information science and co-author to the study puts it, this feeling of “knowing people in the moment” is fostered by Snapchat’s design as a mobile application and the ephemerality of snap content.

While taking a screenshot of a sender’s snap was considered a default “norm violation” for archiving what was meant to disappear, the study finds this practice is accepted between users who are close friends or in cases when the shared content is out of the ordinary. Chang and Xu say this exception to the temporary nature of the app’s content provokes questions as to whether users want more or less ephemerality in their social networks.

The study was published and presented at the Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing journal proceeding conference in San Francisco from Feb. 27 to Mar. 2. Social media industry representatives also attended the conference and in response to the study, raised questions about a possible trend toward ephemerality and whether it should be integrated into larger platforms.

“It’s an interesting perspective for social media designers to think about,” said Xu. “What are the benefits and the costs to having ephemeral features?”

It is evident that other developers are taking note of the app’s unique features. Xu cited an new communication app, Telegram, as an example that takes Snapchat’s appeal into account. The app deletes transmitted messages after a certain amount of time.

While the study finds that ephemerality encourages close relationship maintenance, it does not conclude whether this feature of design would be as successful or popular integrated into other platforms. Xu said that answering this question would require “a more comprehensive comparison between Snapchat and other social media”.

Studies like this pave the way for future exploration into human-technology interaction and how technology and design influence human communication. Research into the effects of social media design provoke questions as to the implications of text versus image and video-based applications or the extent of influence of design trends like ephemerality.

By studying the intersection of social media platform design and human communication and interaction, the authors hope to promote further explorations into ephemeral features and interdisciplinary research on digital sociality.