The slow, incredibly climactic, end of many mini eras
Two weeks ago, the first day of my sophomore year, I almost lost a Snapchat streak. Amidst the flurry of crisp syllabi, first day assignments, sickening August heat and exhaustion from being back at school, I had to deal with the moment of intense panic that automatically seizes me every time I open a selfie with the word “streak” on it.
This summer, I deleted all social media for several weeks. It was easy to discard my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, but Snapchat promised a special kind of torture. As the Snapchat logo did its vibrating dance on my phone, taunting me to press the delete button, I struggled to free myself from the app’s grip.
And that was, of course, because of my streaks.
The significance of a streak—a number denoting how many days in a row two people have sent/received Snapchats from each other—is impossible to grasp.
Maintaining my streaks feels simple and routine. I don’t actively tend to my streaks; they tend to me. No matter how small the streak, and as long as a fire emoji exists next to a username, I will Snapchat that person whenever the streak appears in danger, and they will do the same for me. Whenever someone reminds me about a streak, I, of course, quickly act to fix it. Because it’s so easy to keep a streak going, I feel obligated to do so.
The streak also feels too significant and hard-earned to neglect. Every time I lose a streak, I’m left with one essential question: What kind of person am I, if I use my computer and phone for hours a day, mindlessly scrolling through social media, taking notes, studying, writing articles and essays, crushing candy and watching Netflix, but I can’t check in with my little sister/cousin/best friend who lives across the country for three seconds?
My longest current streak has lasted 20 days, and I have several five-day-olds that I’m struggling to keep alive. All my longer ones have disappeared because of my own thoughtlessness, and the loss of each one felt like a swift punch to the gut.
Snapchat’s user-friendliness magnifies this guilt. Unlike Instagram, Snapchat requires no thought, no photography, no art skills, no skillful caption. Snapchat runs perpendicular to Instagram: There’s nothing beautiful or filtered or “Insta-worthy” about it. Snapchats are raw, in real-time and, often, quite boring. And that’s how the platform was designed—because Snapchats are so easily crafted, there’s no excuse for losing a streak.
No, really—there are no excuses: When my sister’s friend went out of town and lost internet connection for several weeks, she lent my sister her password to sign into the account and keep her streaks going for her. I’ve heard of a friend of a friend who lost a 400-plus day Snap streak, emailed Snapchat claiming technical error and had the streak restored.
Snapchat incentivizes time spent on the app, rewarding persistent use with a streak, an acknowledgement of users’ abilities to build strong friendships. Unlike other social networks, Snapchat profits from users’ guilt. No other site has figured out how to its warp users’ dedication into emotional games like Snapchat has. By quantifying relationships in terms of the continuous app usage, Snapchat has crafted a moral obligation for users to sign in each day.
Is it worth it? I feel decisively closer to my friends from high school with whom I have kept streaks since coming to college. Forced daily check-ins keep us accountable to one another and bring us closer together. When I receive a Snapchat from someone lamenting a bad day or a stressful exam, I follow up with a text message to see how they’re doing, and they do the same for me.
When a streak dies, an important channel of contact dies. No one is held responsible for maintaining the bond. Soon, the person falls off the best friend list—and check-ins and follow-up conversations become less frequent. This feared scenario also enforces the pressure to keep a streak going. Generally, I use Snapchat to correspond with family and friends from home, more than with friends from college. So, it’s brilliant, really, that every time I purposefully or inadvertently go 24 hours without the app, I risk further altering the dynamic of friendships with people who’ve moved far away or with whom I’ve otherwise been forced to reduce regular contact.
Still, I’m conflicted. Snapchat can be beautiful. On the first day of school, when I almost lost my streak, it was my friend who now lives in Texas who reached out to save our little fire. Our exchange of close-up unflattering selfies with no words on them except “Streak,” said something much deeper: “I care about hearing from you, and as we go into this new school year, I want to prioritize our keeping in touch.”
Similarly, I recently received a mass Snap from a friend who moved to California. An otherwise unremarkable close-up of her expressionless face was transformed by the simple and powerful words: “if you’re reading this, I want to start a streak with you.”