When you consider the location-based properties of social media, it’s somewhat surprising that Snapchat’s map feature—which allows users to see where other users are posting from and watch videos in geographical clusters—is the only such location-based browsing feature on any social media network. Indeed, in just two short months since being rolled out, Snap’s feature has become very popular with users, despite early criticism.
The recent devastating hurricanes in the US have shown the popularity of the feature, and watching the location-tagged Snaps from Harvey or Irma have offered a kind of immersive experience of the disaster through the eyes of those experiencing it. Writing for Wired, Jessi Hempel noted that “The video Snaps, taken together, conveyed more than a string of facts or a glimpse of the surroundings. They conveyed a range of emotions—horror, shock, anger, loss, sadness, and, in small, sweet moments, joy. They told a collective human story about the experience.”
Given Snap’s intense rivalry with Facebook (Instagram), and the latter’s propensity for ripping of Snap’s winning ideas, it’s surprising that Snapchat seems to have cracked the location-based code before Instagram did. But interestingly, Instagram tried to enable such a feature last year, but found that it wasn’t popular with users. The map feature was buried within the app and it treated photos as documents, rather than Snap’s approach of treating them as evolving stories. In effect, Snap has managed to pull off a feature that no one else has. This tells us some surprising things about the image-sharing age.
As Hempel went on to say, “Snap Map reveals something else, too: Regardless of how successful Snapchat cofounder and CEO Evan Spiegel turns out to be at building a company, he’s proven himself adept at understanding and building products for the most fundamental communication shift of our time.” He added that while Facebook may have pioneered the idea of sharing photos online, they have not “proven adept at launching original, photo-driven features.”
It should be noted that Snap’s map feature was heavily critiqued early on for privacy concerns. As Wired noted in an earlier article in June, “Snapchat sees Snap Map as a fun and convenient way to connect with friends. But for plenty of people, the new feature is just plain creepy. Some worry about the “stalker factor,” particularly for Snapchat’s younger users who might not fully grasp the implications of a technology that constantly broadcasts their location.” While these location-based privacy concerns are surely valid and should be an evolving conversation, Snapchat has offered users the opportunity to opt out of the feature, which should assuage the concerns of anyone who does not want to broadcast their location.
Security concerns aside, national and high profile events like Harvey help showcase the power of collective sharing via images. The shift here is in what photos now represent: they have become more than just relics of a past event, they’ve become a new language, a way of expressing both what we’ve seen and how we feel. As Hempel notes, “Snap Map introduces context to those stories, and thus becomes our real-time visual newspaper—a framework for understanding the time and place of our chatter.”
This understanding of how we use imagery is why Spiegel has always put the camera and sharing aspect of Snapchat front and center; he wants users to actively share as much as they passively consume. This is a lesson for social media networks moving forward. Thus far, we’ve considered the consumption of photos much more than the sharing of them. Snap’s map feature—as well as the basic premise of Snapchat itself—understands how dynamic and real-time sharing can be a way to heighten our empathy and connectivity to each other.