Every young person you know is on Snapchat. Industry experts say the ephemeral social platform has around 100 million active users, most of which “are between the ages of 13 and 25,” according to an August Business Insider Intelligence report. With more sex appeal than Facebook and Twitter, and a more intimate user experience than Instagram, Snapchat’s little yellow tile has become the de rigueur communication choice of mobile-obsessed teens looking to instantly share life’s minutiae with one another (which, according reports, users do as many as 400 million times a day).
Bob Kelly is an outspoken member of this cutting edge community, and he’s one of its most innovative power users. He’s also 77, which makes him old enough to be a grandfather to Evan Spiegel, the 24-year-old fratreprenuer who founded Snapchat in 2011 and serves as its requisite investor-friendly wunderkind CEO.
I first got wind of Snapchat Grandpa (as one of his grandchildren calls him) in mid-November, in an email from an old UVa friend named Courtney. Her neighbor Ryan Kelly used the messaging app–once stigmatized as little more than a digital switchboard for nude photos–to communicate with his paternal grandfather, who had suffered a stroke and didn’t like to talk on the phone. They snapped back and forth so often, in fact, that Ryan was making a physical scrapbook documenting this whole 21st-century epistolary relationship, which he’d be presenting to his grandfather for Christmas. Did I want to meet him?
I did, for two reasons. First, because–at the risk of sounding like a colossal dweeb–I’m a Snapchat addict. Second, because it sounded like Bob was unwittingly charting his way through a billion-dollar design problem. (More on that later.)
A few days later, I shook hands with Ryan, 27, in a cozy back bar in Manhattan’s Financial District. We had barely dispensed with “who-knows-who” pleasantries (disclosure: Ryan and I are both alumni of Virginia, though we’d never encountered each other before I began reporting this story) and finished our first round before his iPhone buzzed with a Snapchat push notification.
“See?” Ryan grinned widely, clearly pleased with the fortuitous timing. “Here’s one right now.” We leaned in, and sure enough, there was Bob peering back at us–spiky white hair, ruddy face, twinkling blue eyes, every inch a grandfather.
“He’s my ‘best friend’ on Snapchat,” Ryan said sheepishly, referring to the app’s term for a user’s most responsive contacts. We got another round and I had Ryan begin at the beginning.
Having suffered a stroke 13 years ago, Bob often found texting a challenge, and even before the stroke, “we’d always have to call my grandma, and my grandpa would never want to get on the phone,” Ryan said. As his grandchildren grew up and moved beyond Westchester County, it became difficult to keep in touch. Anyone with relatives has experienced the particular frustration of trying to get ahold of loved ones with busy schedules, and the Kellys were no different. But Bob remained distant, carrying a flip phone only for emergencies and generally communicating with his grandchildren either through Jean, his wife of 53 years, or face-to-face when they gathered for brunch each Sunday at his modest Mount Vernon home.
The dynamic changed when smartphones arrived, though. “One of my aunts thought it would be funny to get [Bob & Jean] Samsung Galaxies” around March 2014, Ryan recalls. A short time later, one of the cousins got around to downloading Snapchat on Bob’s new smartphone. It’s not clear who made this initial move, or who taught Grandpa what–“We know he doesn’t know how to use video, even though he might claim he does”–but “all of a sudden, we all just started getting these snaps from him.”
With its super-simple interface, open-whenever messaging, and emphasis on visuals over text, Snapchat turned out to be the ideal solution to Bob’s stringent communication needs. Now, “it’s a requirement that [all the Kelly grandchildren] send him Snapchats” every day, Ryan explained with mock gravity. “He’ll get on us if we don’t, because he’ll worry about us.”
The grandkids snap Bob all sorts of things, ranging from affectionate “hellos” to photos and videos of them relaxing with friends or having a few drinks. The latter is the sort of content that’s made Snapchat so popular. (Party pictures are basically the only thing my friends use Snapchat for.) Bob doesn’t drink anymore, and his son Robert doesn’t drink at all. Out of playful discretion for this fact, a joke has developed: When Ryan sends shots of himself putting one back, he calls the alcoholic beverages “milk.”
“But what does he snap?” I asked, trying and failing to imagine the sort of quick-disappearing content a retired grandfather of nine might deem worthy of sharing. Ryan began scrolling through screencaps on his phone. (The app notifies users when recipients capture photos before they disappear, as a guard against a bad actor amassing compromising content without its originator’s awareness. Obviously, this is not that.)
There was a photo of Bob and Jean holding dairy milk up in a mock-cheers response to Ryan’s beer shot; here was a photo of an old printed family photo pulled from an album; there was a straight-on shot of Bob’s face, cracked wide open with a smile. A selfie from a septuagenarian.
The interaction felt as natural as it would between a pair of teenagers. Which is impressive, when you think about how many people have devoted millions of dollars trying to build tech that addresses the problems of isolated seniors. Today, health care investors are increasingly focusing on mobile care for senior citizens, i.e., people who spend $300 billion a year on health care. Startups have already replaced the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” pendant with an Apple Watch clone and are trying to use talking pet avatars to help isolated senior citizens avoid depression. It all falls under the umbrella of senior-oriented “telehealth,” which will be an estimated $20 billion market by 2020.
But while telehealth businesses can outsource medical and social aid, they can’t guarantee the captive attention of the grandchildren that put smiles on grandparents’ faces. Snapchat is where the kids are by choice, and, at least in this case, it’s easy enough to use that the elderly can be there, too.
There are no phones allowed at Bob Kelly’s table. I’d been warned, but of course I’d forgotten as soon as I sat down. Scrolling absentmindedly through my emails, I felt his clear blue eyes fixed to the phone in my hand. Most of the Kellys were in the adjacent kitchen, preparing lunch. He grinned at me conspiratorially. “That’s okay,” he said with a judicious nod. “You didn’t know yet.”
Realizing that Bob wouldn’t be much of an interview over the phone (he still hates talking on them), I’d tagged along with Ryan and his sister to Sunday brunch at their grandparents’ house in Mount Vernon. Their home is nestled within a pleasant working-class burgh directly north of the Bronx’s upper limit–just the type of place young people sometimes fly away from once they’ve spread their wings.
“We lost everybody,” Bob said wistfully. “They used to be with us every Sunday. Now”, he says, gesturing to the phone in his pocket, “we’re with them all the time.”
It’s not much of an exaggeration: between “good mornings,” midday check-ins, and “good nights” to his grandkids, Bob estimated he sends at least 40 snaps each day. “That’s what’s great about Snapchat, see? It’s ding-ding-ding.” Across the table, Jean elaborates. “You can’t call the kids in the morning, you know? They’re getting ready [for school, work, etc.], they’re busy. With this, they don’t have to pick up right at that time.”
That’s generally true. Snapchat is asynchronous–a snap can be opened minutes, hours, or even days after it is sent. But Bob’s snaps have a shelf life. “He gets after us if we don’t open them fast enough,” Ryan told me. Bob will even go so far as to punitively cut off those who neglect his snaps. Jessica, another of Bob’s grandchildren who was at brunch the day I visited, had suffered just such a fate for failing to view and respond swiftly enough. “It’s my birthday this week, Grandpa!” she said, lobbying for reinstatement. He smiled like a Cheshire cat and glanced around the table, gently gloating at his upper hand.
“I think more old people should use it,” Bob kept saying throughout the meal. “People who are stuck at home… they should tell you about [Snapchat] when you’re down at the Verizon.” Bob is still able to drive, but many of his peers are housebound, and he’s familiar with the challenges of isolation.
I suggested he should teach a class for 65+ folks on how to use 2014’s hottest app for teenagers. He shrugged noncommittally. “Those guys down at the [Elk’s] Lodge,” where Bob congregates with other same-aged members, “they’re men. They’re not interested. But when I talk to women about it, [framing it] as a way to keep in touch with your grandchildren, they love it.”
After the food has been cleared away, Bob and I talked one-on-one, him showing me how he used Snapchat, me snapping photographs. The app isn’t exactly intuitive, even for me at 26, but he knows its ins and outs pretty well. He knows how to set the timer to keep his photos on-screen longer, and copies himself on all his snaps to review after the fact. “See, that one I didn’t do so good,” he admitted, critiquing a selfie he’d just sent. When he receives snaps from the kids with text written in such a way that it falls over their faces, he gets mad. (“You gotta move the black bar!”) Like any grandparent, Bob wants to see good pictures of his grandchildren.
Once Bob got the hang of Snapchat, and figured out how to use the Samsung’s stylus for more touchscreen control, his attitude toward technology softened slightly. Used to be, all Kellys had to deposit their phones in a lockbox–literally, a box that snaps shut–at the door upon arrival so he could be sure no one was using them beneath the table. Nowadays, Bob will occasionally take his phone out during Sunday brunch to send a snap to the cousins that couldn’t attend. When his grandkids call him on his hypocrisy, he’ll grin, blue eyes flashing mischieviously. “I can break my own rules,” he’ll say.
And what of Ryan’s “Snapchat Grandpa” photo album, a permanent old-media commemoration of their ephemeral virtual correspondence? The grandson says he is planning to unveil it on Christmas Eve, when the whole Kelly clan is gathered in Westchester for the holiday. “He will love it,” Ryan texts me a few weeks after our visit to Mount Vernon, “and will probably be a bit bashful of some he sent that he didn’t know I saved.” In other words, Bob will learn (in the most heartwarming way possible) a lesson that so many young Snapchatters have figured out the hard way: Nothing you send is ever gone for good.