Start a streak with democracy: Snapchat in the newsroom
Christopher Parker | Tuesday, September 24, 2019
Of all the social media apps that mystify my mother, I’d say Snapchat is the most foreign to her. As a form of communication, it truly makes no sense. If I had a dollar for every time somebody answered a question over Snapchat when I’d totally forgotten the question itself… well, I’d still be in crippling student debt. The point is that Snapchat is a very strange cultural phenomenon. It’s an inefficient and (if you’re struggling on a limited data plan like myself) impractical way of talking to people. However, what Snapchat lacks in logic, it makes up for in potential, especially in the industry I hope to enter. I believe Snapchat is slowly becoming the journalism tool of the future.
Let’s first talk broadly about social media and news. It’s a scary time to get involved in this field. People think that any account with a check mark next to it means the truth. Social media allows for the spread of misinformation, because anyone can say anything they want — and many of us are too lazy to check the sources out. It’s easy to blame the media rather than the individual for the spread of misinformation. Nobody wants to admit to being an irresponsible consumer of news. As journalists, admonishing people for not checking sources won’t get us anywhere. People assume that journalists check sources and write stories because, before social media, disinformation couldn’t masquerade as truth. Before social media, people knew the difference between The Globe and The Washington Post. Okay, so, what do we do now? Build informational apocalypse shelters and refuse to acknowledge that any news is accurate news? Reliable and ethical publications must fight fire with fire. Our content must be as accessible and engaging as possible so an everyday person clicks a link to the Times instead of InfoWars. That means, to the disgust of many serious journalists, social media.
Now, on to the little yellow ghost. When I spoke with my social media editor about creating a Snapchat account for this newspaper, she asked me point blank why we needed one. Almost every newspaper in the country has a Facebook and a Twitter. Many have Instagram. Very few use Snapchat. I’m guessing it’s because people see Snapchat less like a bulletin board and more like a mailing service — interactions are private and individualized. Many of us remember when that was the case. The point was to send pictures back and forth. However, with the introduction of stories, then geofilters, then the Discover page, Snapchat became more than a modern AOL Instant Messaging (Who remembers that?). As much as we hate the ads between stories, as much as I personally hate the Snapchat shows that have been coming out since 2018, the app today is almost unrecognizable from what it once was. Now it feels like a true social media platform.
But if it now does the same things as other social media, why do we need Snapchat specifically? What makes Snapchat different? I think the first answer is the demographic. Sorry, Baby Boomers, but you’ve probably noticed that your kids left Facebook in 2010. Twitter is pretty transcendent, but it can also be overwhelming. Instagram, sure, that’s ours. But does any social media platform truly define Generation Z like Snapchat? Kids born today enter an age we pioneered: When they write the social history of the internet, anyone born between 1995 and 2005 will be defined by Snapchat — and memes.
My interest in Snapchat, though, originates from the Arab Spring. Anybody defending the utility of social media will bring up those revolutions as they were organized and carried out via Facebook without censorship by a totalitarian regime. The Arab Spring justifies social media as a force for good, even as the reputation of social media platforms grow bleak. Imagine, though, if a revolution could livestream from not one, but hundreds, of people across the scope of the conflict. From my dorm room, I could understand the way a war impacted a family versus a journalist versus a soldier. Even for simply a sporting event (shoutout to anyone who saw The Observer’s story for the New Mexico game), we could get the best plays from every angle and see how the crowd celebrates. No other social platform creates a mosaic of perspectives, a quilt of citizen journalism that can have as little or as much moderation as we desire. No other social platform offers location-based services that drive people to go to an event in order to make their story seen. No other social platform has the potential to change journalism the way Snapchat does.
If you’ve stuck with this story for this long, congratulations. You’re a dying breed. News can’t be just newspapers anymore. We don’t have the attention span. But that doesn’t mean news has to be people yelling at each other for two minutes, followed by five minutes of ads. It doesn’t have to be headlines about a Florida man being kidnapped by aliens. Modern news can be “show, don’t tell” in the extreme with journalists acting as hosts and moderators for live and unfiltered content. Or, if responsible and ethical journalists shun this new world for what’s familiar and comfortable, it can become a wasteland of poorly-written soap operas in portrait mode. It’s up to us.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.