Here's the problem: nobody wants to sound like "an old." One way to avoid sounding like "an old" is to stay up on the hip new social experiences teens and young adults are having online these days. But, there's terrible risk in trying to describe the social mores of a younger generation — you might sound like "an old." So I'm going to take one for the team. I'm going to try to explain Snapchat.

Most of us are familiar with the basic concept of Snapchat: you send someone a picture or video message, and that message self-destructs once opened by the recipient. It seemed purpose-made for sexting, and actually kind of terrible for normal communication.

I'm not going to pretend I actually know why Snapchat's original functionality seemed appealing to non-sexters. Maybe they were all just sexting and nobody told me. But here's my theory: Snapchat is a way to use pictures, video, and text in a weird asynchronous, non-permanent way. Phone calls and video chat are realtime and non-permanent. Text and picture messaging are asynchronous but permanent. Snapchat is in this weird middle place.

The "language" of Snapchat is an amalgam. You can put text, drawings, and emoji above pictures and videos you send. You can choose how long a picture can stay on screen before it poofs into nothingness, and a video can be super-brief all the way up to 10 seconds long. By digging into this toolbox, Snapchat users can rapidly convey current emotional states, "where I am right now" sort of updates, "look at this cool / weird / funny" thing messages, or just go wild and create art. Art that self-destructs.

But. But. Here's the thing that made Snapchat actually really important for old people like me, and a huge magnet for brands, and kind of fascinating: Snapchats that don't self-destruct.

I know, crazy, right?

So here's how it actually works. When you open Snapchat, you're still presented with a camera. You can take photos or videos, decorate them, and send them to your Snapchat friends, just like normal. Private Snaps can be perused by swiping right. But if you swipe left, you're in a whole new universe: Snapchat Stories.

Not knowing what Snapchat stories are is the first sign you're "an old" who installed Snapchat a couple years ago, didn't like it, uninstalled, and now you get the senior coffee discount at McDonald's. (I'm describing myself, please don't be offended. My dad gets the senior coffee at McDonald's and he's actually a really nice guy.)

Stories are composed exactly like Snaps, except they go out to the public — anyone who follows your Snapchat Story — instead of just to people you choose specifically. You know, just like how Instagram and Twitter work. The "twist" is that each Snap lives for 24 hours and then disappears. So if you put a few Snaps up before noon, and a few Snaps up after noon, by noon the next day only the latter Snaps will still be viewable. Just to be clarify once more, because I really did not understand this: Snaps put into a Story are available to followers (even for re-viewing!) within a sliding 24 hour window.

So, what could you possibly do now with the tools Snapchat provides? Anything, obviously. Snapchat doesn't punish oversharing as harshly as Instagram and Facebook, because everything disappears in 24 hours. Snapchat doesn't expect as much perfection as Vine or YouTube, because everything disappears in 24 hours. And Snapchat doesn't feel as much like you're talking to the "world" as it does when you use Twitter, because there aren't any retweets or any other way of "saving" a Snap outside of cumbersome screen recording.

There are, of course, Snapchat celebrities. And also celebrities who use Snapchat. And just a ton of other people who Snap about their day all the time. There's something "raw" about most Snapchat stories I've seen, where you get a relatively detailed picture of what someone is doing that day, how they feel, and who they hang out with — all things more rare in highly curated mediums like Vine, Instagram, and Twitter.

Snapchat has other idiosyncrasies. Just like how Twitter limits you to 140 characters, but doesn't limit your number of Tweets, Snapchat limits your videos to 10 seconds, but not your number of videos. Some people do long monologues, and just pick up where their last video cut off. Other people tailor their speech to just barely overflow the 10 second cutoff — you know what they were saying, but it feels "off the cuff" because they ran over.

For some reason, Snapchat is the perfect place for running jokes.

For some reason, Snapchat is the perfect place for running jokes. I guess because the 24 hour window creates an "in crowd" of people who catch the reference, and there's no way to catch up if you missed it. Just like how real friendships work, basically.

The greatest Snapper alive is "mackenziestith," but it's kind of pointless to describe why. She jams hard to young people music when stuck in California traffic? She makes this weird sound when zooming in on Skylander-themed fruit snacks? She seems simultaneously successful, popular, and an adorable wreck? I don't know. Snapchat is a free app, and this is your homework assignment: add mackenziestith.

But get there quickly. Snapchat is being invaded by brands. No Snapchat Story is safe.


About Paul Miller

That guy who left the internet for a year