A snap of intimacy

A snap of intimacy: Photo-sharing practices among young people on social media by Jette Kofoed and Malene Charlotte Larsen

In this paper we investigate photo sharing practices among young people on the ephemeral social media platform Snapchat. What kind of photos are exchanged amongst 12–17 year olds via this app where pictures are elicited after up to 10 seconds? How is the content of the photos perceived by the young people themselves? We employ an Internet-mediated mixed methods approach. The primary empirical material consists of an online survey focusing on photo-elicitation practices on the two platforms Snapchat and Instagram conducted in 2015 and 2016 amongst Danish young people. Our results suggest that Snapchat is a site for intimacy in that pictures of double chins, ugliness and self-exposure are shared. These activities of photo-sharing and photo-communication bind young people in closeness and friendships. In this respect Snapchat differs from, for instance, Instagram where the pictures shared tend to be more polished, neat and perfect. The intimacy shared and maintained on Snapchat does, however, also cover nudes, dickpics and tarnished pictures. In this respect, intimacy entails both the comfort of sharing and the dramas of disruptions.


1. Introduction 2. Photo sharing practices on social media 3. The ephemeral and the persistent: Snapchat and Instagram’s affordances 4. Empirical data and methods 5. The concept of intimacy in relation to Snapchat 6. Analytical findings 7. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Today, photo sharing practices of young people are heavily intertwined with their mundane everyday life and online interactions. Needless to say, online and off-line lives are intrinsically enmeshed. Young people share photos frequently, through various platforms and often ‘on the go’. Such mobility allows users to share photos remotely and irrespective of time and place. On Snapchat young people often employ a higher level of self-disclosure and have reduced self-presentational concerns compared to other social media platforms (Larsen and Kofoed, 2015; Bayer, et al., 2016). Their photo sharing practices can best be described as “networked photography” referring to the sharing of images immediately after they are captured, using, for instance, instant messaging (IM) tools or social media applications (Lobinger, 2016) and as “visual conversations” with a high frequency of interactions among sender and receiver (Katz and Crocker, 2015). As Lobinger (2016) notes, photo sharing has become a pervasive routine communicative act in everyday life. This is especially true for young people who are the most frequent users of photo sharing social media applications such as Snapchat and Instagram (Thaarup and Scheutz, 2015; TNS Gallup, 2015).

In this paper we take our empirical point of departure in the ephemeral social media app Snapchat and our theoretical point of departure in the concept of intimacy (Berlant, 1998). We investigate how Snapchat conditions temporality and intensity in ways that allow for intimacy to flow. Thus, our main research question in this paper is: How do young people aged 12–17 practice intimacy and maintain relationships through the sharing of photos on Snapchat?

To answer this question, we have two analytical foci in the paper. Firstly, Snapchat involves sharing a moment on the move and often non-glamorous selfies (Larsen and Kofoed, 2015; Christensen, et al., 2015; Katz and Crocker, 2015; Bayer, et al., 2016). How does such non-glamorous self-disclosures play out? How are they perceived? Are they utterly unimportant, as respondents often state themselves (Larsen and Kofoed, 2015; Lobinger and Brantner, 2015)? Or are they key players in maintaining and challenging intimate relations because of their apparently unimportant and self-disclosing content such as double chins or ugly selfies?

Secondly, a high level of self-presentational concerns is often expressed in relation to Instagram whereas Snapchat by the young people is seen as an emotional escape and an intimate “free space”; free of having to be evaluated, notified or “liked” thus paving the way for more distributed practices of self-presentations through photo sharing, as opposed to photo sharing on Facebook where users are subject to a more unified self-presentation (Wittkower, 2014). Users are generally aware that snaps might be screenshot and saved on the receiver’s phone, which often creates an even closer bond of intimacy and trust between users. However, these issues also put users at risk of cyberbullying (Kofoed, 2014; Kofoed and Ringrose, 2012) and the feelings of being safe in the shared intimacy of Snapchat can be intimidated. In the paper we discuss ‘public intimacy’ in social media environments where content is shared for a limited period of time and promises to evaporate.

We begin the paper by discussing photo sharing practices on social media with a special focus on the two, at the time of investigation, most popular mobile photo sharing applications, Snapchat and Instagram, and their affordances. Here, we outline most recent research on photo-elicitation practices in order to situate our own analysis focusing on Snapchat. Then we present our empirical data and the methods used and clarify our understanding of the concept of intimacy in relation to social media and photo sharing as this is a central focal point in our analysis. Subsequently, we present our analytical findings. Before we conclude the paper we discuss what happens when the intimacy shared and maintained on Snapchat also involves nudes, dickpics and tarnished pictures that discredit certain individuals; or intimate sharings of nude pictures that are screenshot.

2. Photo sharing practices on social media

When young people exchange and share photos on social media platforms, they do so for various purposes. Drawing on practice theory (Couldry, 2004; Reckwitz, 2002; Schatzki, 1996), Lobinger (2016) points to three central communicative modes of photo sharing practices, all of which can be ascribed to young people’s photo sharing on social media applications such as Snapchat and Instagram: 1) Sharing photos in order to talk about images; 2) sharing photos in order to communicate visually; and 3) phatic photo sharing.

Firstly, when photos are shared in order to talk about images, the photos are used as a supporting conversational resource. Sharing for instance family vacation photos usually involves talking and telling stories about the photographs (not with them) [1]. This kind of oral storytelling can take place in both online and off-line settings with conversational partners in either remote or collocated situations. On Snapchat it is possible to add text as well as drawings, lenses or emoticons to snaps. Often, young people will use Snapchat to communicate about certain subjects and from our fieldwork we know that they sometimes turn to Snapchat when seeking advice from peers; for instance, taking a photo of a jacket in a clothing store and sending it to a friend with the inscription “Should I buy this jacket?” Snapchat is also used as a way of documenting events or activities (e.g., “Look how wet I got cycling home from school :(”) thus initiating conversations around a specific topic. In this mode of photo sharing, the photo would not make sense without the conversation around it or the story to support it.

On the other hand, when photos are shared to communicate visually, focus shifts to the content and visual qualities of the shared image. In this regard, people share photos in order to express themselves visually or to tell something with the photos [2]. This is especially true for the social media application Instagram (e.g., Hu, et al., 2014; Bakhshi, et al., 2014) which has a built-in focus on the aesthetics of the images shared encouraging the usage of different filters and edits to beautify the photographed image. As young people themselves point out, Instagram is mostly about polished, aesthetic and well thought out photo sharing practices (Larsen and Kofoed, 2015). However, sharing photos in order to communicate visually does not necessarily require sophisticated visual modalities and aesthetic qualities of the photos [3]. Thus, many photos sharing practices related to self-presentation on social media involves mundane and unglamorous photos, where the specific depicted situations or people are much more important than the images themselves (Larsen, 2013, 2007; Autenrieth, 2011; Lobinger, 2016).

Thirdly, phatic photo sharing takes place when the photographic object is irrelevant and photos are exchanged mainly for the sake of visual connectivity and to confirm and strengthen relationships [4]. This is a widespread practice among young people on social media (Larsen, 2007; Miller, 2008; Stald, 2008; Radovanovic and Ragnedda, 2012) — and particularly on Snapchat where photos or videos disappear after one to 10 seconds or after 24 hours (if the feature MyStory is used). When photos are exchanged phatically, they function as “a fluid and dynamic material for situational live communication” [5]. Especially, on Snapchat photos only have “situational relevance”; for which reason “sending a snap” could be seen as a new way of texting (Larsen and Kofoed, 2015) and is perceived by youth as more enjoyable compared to other communication technologies (Bayer, et al., 2016; Piwek and Joinson, 2016). Bayer, et al. (2016) found that college students do not even see Snapchat as a platform for sharing or viewing photos; rather it is “a lightweight channel for sharing spontaneous experiences with trusted others” [6]. From our own fieldwork we know that adolescents do not refer to Snapchat as “sending a photo” as much as they refer to the act of “sending a message” on Snapchat. Likewise, Piwek and Joinson (2016) found that Snapchat is “mainly used as a playful mobile IM service to rapidly communicate and share content” [7]. Today, Snapchat is, for many young people, the favorite medium and primary tool for phatic communication between close ties and has, to some degree, taken over the function from IM or text messaging (Larsen and Kofoed, 2015; Piwek and Joinson, 2016; Handyside and Ringrose, forthcoming).

It is important to stress that these modes of photo sharing practices are entangled and applied in different situations with different technological affordances, as we shall also see in the analysis of this paper.

3. The ephemeral and the persistent: Snapchat and Instagram’s affordances

Technologies are not innocent. They all come with different affordances that affect the way they are used and how social life is played out. As Nagy and Neff (2015) stress “users’ perceptions, beliefs, and expectations of what the technology does […] ‘shape how they approach them and what actions they think are suggested’” [8]. In this paper we use the concept of ‘affordance’. Bucher and Helmond (2017) propound that we distinguish between a high-level and a low-level understanding of the term. We take off from this distinction but argue that we, in this study, need to allow the two to entangle. This entails that we focus on both the dynamics, conditions and communicative practices that are enabled by the social media apps (a high-level understanding) as well as the specific technical features, buttons and symbols of the apps’ user interface (a low-level understanding).

Whether or not Snapchat can be characterized as a ‘social media’ has been discussed within the Internet research community (e.g., Christensen, et al., 2015; Rettberg, 2016). Surely, the features and affordances (or lack hereof) of Snapchat does not fit with one of the most quoted definitions of a ‘social network site’ (boyd and Ellison, 2007), as also pointed out by Rettberg (2016). This definition emphasizes the public or semi-public nature where having a profile and a searchable ‘friend list’ is central. Also, Snapchat does not fit the description of ‘networked publics’ proposed by boyd (2011) as a way of understanding social media and social network sites. On Snapchat, online expressions are not automatically recorded and archived, content cannot be duplicated (unless receiver takes a screenshot or if sender saves a copy to the phone’s camera roll before sending), for which reason the content is not meant to reach a larger audience — and cannot be accessed via searching — all of which are the elements or affordances that define social network sites as networked publics, according to boyd (2011). The ephemeral nature of snaps and the lack of a feed with archived content makes the app difficult to fit into any predefined categorisation of social media. As Piwek and Joinson (2016) point out, Snapchat can be seen as an IM platform — with additional features (for instance the possibility of making finger-drawn ‘doodles’, using selfie lenses and geofilters to edit pictures) that make the app unique in terms of instant messaging services.

However, there is no doubt that Snapchat is in fact a social medium and we — as well as our respondents — understand it as such. Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) suggest that we classify different types of social media based on their level of self-presentation and self-disclosure on the one hand and the degree of social presence and media richness on the other hand. Following their argumentation, there is no doubt that Snapchat is an example of a social media platform that affords a high level of self-presentation and self-disclosure as well as a rather high degree of media richness and social presence due to the possibility of video-messaging, albeit content is self-destructing.

The most noteworthy and pioneering about Snapchat as a social media app is the fact that content self-destructs after a short interval. However, sometimes the content is screenshot by the viewer — and possibly shared again. Ephemeral social media such as Snapchat thus interrupts linear temporality and, we argue, plays with both temporality and intimacy (Handyside and Ringrose, forthcoming). Instagram, on the contrary, can be described as a media where content sharing is persistent [9] — that is, the app allows the users to organize, use, document and remember in a persistent manner (Bayer, et al., 2016).

This study is carried out when Snapchat and Instagram were still easily distinguishable as outlined above. This allows us to dwell at the particularities of the ephemerality of self-destruction. We do so by studying the particularities of Snapchat up against the differences to Instagram. The survey and analysis was carried out during the autumn of 2015 and spring of 2016, in the momentum before the two apps began looking more alike. During the summer of 2016, at the time when we finalized the analysis, both apps have added new affordances that makes it harder to distinguish the two.

Until recently Snapchat was all about sharing real time “in the moment” photos whereas Instagram could contain both photos taken instantly or previously (socalled “#latergrams”). On Snapchat all content is ephemeral — snaps are visible either one to 10 seconds, or 24 hours if they are posted to “MyStory” — and content on Instagram used to be solely persistent is the sense that all photos or videos were stored in the user’s feed unless he or she deliberately deleted them. However, changes made during the summer of 2016 made the differences between the two apps smaller. Snapchat has added the feature “Memories” allowing for the use of previously saved snaps or content from the phone’s camera roll. Concurrently, Instagram copied Snapchat’s “MyStory” launching “Instagram Stories”; a secondary feed where users can add content that is available for 24 hours from the time of posting. The latter has been described as “a near-perfect copy of Snapchat stories” (Newton, 2016) and Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom openly conceded that the story feature is in fact a copy of Snapchat’s (Constine, 2016). The purpose of adding this feature is to encourage Instagram users to share “smaller moments” and not just add highlights from their lives (Constine, 2016) — as has been the most widespread practice so far, especially among teenagers (Larsen and Kofoed, 2015).

These changes have blurred the boundaries and differences between the two apps. Now, both apps play with temporal structure; the main difference is that Snapchat still lacks the persistent content (e.g., a feed with archived photos and videos) — and that the ephemeral nature of Instagram only consists of “stories” with unlimited viewing for 24 hours (and not one-time viewing of individual one to 10 seconds photos). Even though the distinction between the ephemeral and the persistent might soon be bypassed by the development of new social media and new affordances in existing media, the particularity of ephemerality is worth scrutinizing.

It remains to be seen how the recent changes will affect the future use of the two apps. We present analysis from the moment before these recent changes of affordances. We propose that this analysis before the ‘newness’ of the affordances provides fertile ground for exploration of the phenomenon. This allows us to dwell at the particularities of ephemeralities which is studied in its ‘rawest’ shape, Snapchat, when it was still new to the young people, to the research field and before it was merged with more familiar affordances of persistence. We are especially interested in photo sharing where content evaporates after a very short time (the one to 10 second snaps) since this feature affords certain communicative practices and expectations among users. We argue that the possibility of sending short, self-destructing messages or photos especially paves the way for closeness and intimacy.

4. Empirical data and methods

Our overall methodological approach can be described as multi-sited (Marcus, 1995) as we have been present across off-line and online spaces (the classroom, interview situation, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Ask.fm, Snapchat) and have used different methods (survey, online ethnography and interviews). In pursuing media practices amongst young people we need, as argued by Leander and McKim (2003), to “move beyond place-based ethnography and develop ethnographic methodologies that follow the moving, traveling practices of adolescents online and off-line.” We have developed an Internet mediated mixed methods approach (Hesse-Biber and Griffin, 2013; Larsen, 2014; Hansen, et al., 2014) in which we have attempted to grasp the understandings of social media use by young people themselves (in interviews and online surveys) and by following these young people as they live their online lives.

The primary empirical material for this paper consists of an online survey focusing on photo-elicitation practices on the two platforms Snapchat and Instagram; secondary empirical material consists of qualitative interviews conducted prior to the survey. The primary focus in the survey is typical content and most commonly shared pictures on Snapchat and Instagram as well as the sharing of and experience with photos that are seen as unpleasant or disruptive by the receiver. The survey was, as mentioned, conducted in 2015 and 2016 amongst Danish young people.

Prior to the online survey we conducted interviews in an off-line setting (a Danish elementary school) which subsequently led to online fieldwork and observations on social media, where the young people interviewed were present (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat). This research design is inspired by a virtual ethnographic approach (Hine, 2000). On the basis of this, we were able to formulate the questions that appeared in the online survey where we employed both qualitative and quantitative oriented approaches (using both open– and close–ended questions).

The data collection thus started out in January 2013 with focus group interviews with 25 14-year olds (four interviews with five participants) focusing on social media use, in particular photo sharing practices among the young people and experiences with dating/flirting and sharing of nudes (inspired by the methodology used in Ringrose, et al. (2012). At this point in time, Snapchat was still a relatively new phenomenon, but nevertheless it was already among some of the respondents’ favorite social media platforms (along with Facebook, Instagram, Tublr and Twitter). Especially, it — back in 2013 — caught our interest that a few of the young people pointed out that some photos were only suitable for sharing via Snapchat and not on any other social media platforms. To illustrate how this initial observation affects the development of the methodology, let us share how some of the girls put it:

Such statements suggested from the very beginning that we needed to focus on the particularities of Snapchat and ephemeralities of self-destruction. The questions in the online survey were therefore developed on the background of these focus group interview carried out in 2013 as well as online fieldwork during 2013–2015.

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