My first experience with a Snapchat Story was in college at the University of Tennessee, from an anonymous account called vol_snaps (we’re the Volunteers). It mostly consisted of lots of pics of alcohol-fueled partying. In the midst of all of that was a real glimpse of the collegiate experience, highlighting the times we pulled all-nighters in the library or sledded down our campus’s giant hill on cardboard beer cases.
Last year, Snapchat started to curate what it first called "Our Story" and is now called Live Stories. The format is an amalgamation of snaps, submitted mostly by users and assembled by Snapchat staff. The stitched-together photos and videos—a messy, shaky camera version of live-tweeting—holds true storytelling potential. There’s a little bit of every social media platform in a Live Story, though mostly a bit like Instagram and Vine fused into one, which is probably why the platform is such a hit. It’s its own narrative form, but it feels familiar.
Live stories run the gamut of topics, and their broad scope is a key to their appeal. Earlier this fall, Snapchat did a Passport series, spotlighting a different city or country each day with images of national foods and monuments. They were both educational and entertaining: I learned about language in Krakow, food in Paris, and partying in nearly every foreign city that got their moment in the spotlight. (Hint: it’s not too different from partying in the U.S.)
In watching Live Stories every day for a month, I saw topical ones, such as a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Concert and festival stories are consistently well done. At Spain's La Tomatina festival, for example, the compilation captured the visceral fun that can only come from being doused in overripe tomatoes and participating in the world's biggest food fight. Music festivals, such as Seattle's Bumbershoot, do an excellent job of alternating between the onstage action such as headliner Ellie Goulding singing "Love Me Like You Do" and the exhilaration in the crowd as the music, alcohol, and crowdsurfing marathon continues.
They’re also arguably Snapchat’s new most important product. Live Stories draw 10 million to 20 million pairs of Millennial eyeballs every day. Whereas Snapchat Discover is still figuring out who it is and which content works best, live stories are intuitive. After all, individuals were already (and still are) making them. The platform is compelling precisely because it’s interactive, it’s temporary, and it’s a glimpse into another life—just like television was for previous generations.
Like life, Live Stories can be funny or thought-provoking or just kind of pointless. Some of the most intriguing ones are the snapshots of everyday life, whether it's a rite of passage such as the first day of college or a random assemblage like "I’m on a Boat" about people’s afternoons on the water. Their broad scope is part of the beauty. (That said, "I’m on a boat"? Really Snapchat?). Live Stories feed our never-ending FOMO while indulging our laziness. Why go camp in the sweltering heat of Coachella when you can watch the highlights on your couch and be one of 40 million other viewers?
But Live Stories aren’t without potential for improvement. The sports-related ones tend to be the least interesting (and I am a sports fan). They aren’t quite highlights but rather attempts to create a sense of atmosphere, which is more effective at a music festival than it is during MLB Wednesdays. It’s a problem Snapchat’s sports partners will have to figure out quick. The NFL inked a major deal to produce weekly Live Stories featuring behind-the-scenes experiences and game highlights, but it still seems Live Stories are at their best when it actually feels like a story about someone else’s life.
I was thinking about this while watching a recent Live Story called "Cosmo and Kardashians," centered around a large party in West Hollywood to celebrate the women's magazine Cosmopolitan’s 50th birthday and their set of Kardashian covers (which was conveniently advertised on Cosmo’s Discover channel). The snaps showed interviews with celebrities, glimpses of a Kardashian-filled red carpet, and Kim K’s very first official snap. The champagne, the cake, the glamorous magazine editors—it was all there.
And yet the images clearly seemed to be submitted by outsiders, maybe an intern who literally had to stay until only publicists and security were left to get his or her final shot. The VMAs Live Story was similar, filled with celeb selfies overlaid with hastily scribbled, messy signatures. It was an impersonal autograph that helped the story garner 12 million views, more than all the live broadcasts of the event combined.
This outsider quality is central to the appeal of Snapchat’s Live Stories. We’re supposed to connect with the storytellers, but often that means realizing how different we are from celebrities, or foreign countries, or someone of a different economic status than us. The Live Story can be a tool of cultural education and respect, and it can also be a tabloid. And that's okay. Because either way, millennials eat it up.