Snapchat has become the perfect tool for understanding tragedy

As events unfold.
As events unfold.
Image: Snapchat/Screenshots
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Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a string of tragic events. Three major hurricanes ripped through the US and the Caribbean. A powerful earthquake shook Mexico City. Catalonia tried to hold a vote on independence from Spain, and elderly women were dragged away by riot police. A gunman opened fire from a casino and killed dozens in Las Vegas, Nevada.

We used to wait for news trucks to roll in after an event happens, talk with victims and survey the damage. Occasionally, people who happened to be filming or taking photos when tragedy struck would send their work to news outlets, providing an eyewitness version of events.

Most recently, smartphones with high-resolution cameras that can beam images anywhere in the world have found a place on platforms like Periscope and Facebook Live that allow smartphone owners to broadcast live video and share them with anyone who wants to watch. But the ability to find video feeds on these platforms is difficult if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, or if you haven’t been brought to a feed by someone else.

Earlier this year, Snapchat introduced a feature called Snap Maps. It has become a surprisingly effective window into real-time news events in part because Snap also committed to placing news and events so prominently on its platform. The company recently told Quartz its 173 million users take more than 3 billion snaps a day—but most of those were invisible to the average user. Unless you were sent a snap by someone, or saw a public snap that someone you follow posted, there was no easy way to see what going on in the world of Snapchat. Snap Maps fixed that.

On the surface, the feature is a cute way to see what your friends around the world are doing, and to see what’s happening around the globe. Your friends appear as their Bitmoji, the custom-avatar company Snap acquired in 2016, and they live on a colorful map that looks ripped from the world of Pokémon Go. You can tap on their avatars to see what they’ve been up to over the last 24 hours (after that time, public snaps disappear), or you can tap on any heat map you see anywhere in the world, which indicates that people have snapped there recently.

Snapchat curates some snaps from the same location into events—like concerts, festivals, or parades—that you can watch. But the map also provides just regular snaps from regular people, doing regular things. Tapping around the app, I’ve seen people messing around in school, being bored on a subway train, jumping into a lake with friends, people drinking at bars, and eating brunch with their friends. People document every aspect of their lives now, so when a disaster strikes, it’s not surprising that some are turning to Snapchat to document it as they would anything else.

“These Snaps are sorted using advanced machine learning techniques that aim to surface interesting Snaps that are also safe and fun for our community—not all Snaps sent to Our Story [a user’s public snaps] will show up on the Map or in Search,” Snap told Quartz. “We are relying on a combination of automation, community reporting, and human review to ensure the quality of results on Map, similar to Search, which we hope will continue to improve and refine itself over time.”

Snapchat feels like a more authentic look into how people process real-life situations than other platforms. Yes, on Periscope, you can search a geographic area for live feeds happening at any time, but this isn’t the app most people go to each day.  Snapchat users on average check the app 18 times per day, and spend between 25 and 30 minutes on it each day. About 40% of US Snapchat users are between 18 and 34 years old, according to eMarketer.

Snapchat feels more personal than many other platforms, too: People opening Periscope or Twitter are expecting to broadcast their stories, whereas on Snapchat, you’re assuming only a few people might ever see whatever you post, unless something profound happens. And popular platforms like Twitter and Facebook are great for firing off quick messages or images, but there’s no easy way for a user to check everything that’s happening in an area, unless they follow specific hashtags, or know how to perform advanced searches. On Snapchat, you open the app, pinch in to see the map, and point to the part of the world you want to see.

As a result, for those who use it, Snap Maps has become a deeply intimate way to view major news events in real time. Snap hired CNN political reporter Peter Hamby to run editorial coverage on Snapchat in 2015, and it places its own sourced work next to pieces from outlets like The Economist and The Wall Street Journal on the Discover section of its app. Snap Maps takes Snapchat’s proven ability to surface the emotions its users are sharing and place them where they are happening. When the earthquake started in Mexico, I picked up my phone and opened Snapchat, just as many on the streets of Mexico City did.

At first, there were a few confused snaps from people, then panic set in. Eventually, there were images of buildings completely toppled by the violent quake. Afterwards, there were shots of people helping others, or just looking around shell-shocked.

There were similar scenes in Catalonia this week (as well as a few obnoxious tourists), where an independence referendum turned violent after the Spanish government deemed the vote to be illegal. Snaps from confused tourists blended in with locals documenting what the police were doing to the weakest among them.

In hurricane-stricken areas—those still with working cell connections—we saw flooded roads, battered houses, and people struggling to stay safe. Snap Maps also showed what happens after the storm has passed, and after the news trucks have left: People trying to rebuild their lives, and clean up what is left of their hometowns. You can see the complicated humanity in people, who might post a shot of their wrecked house, and then a shot of them in one of Snapchat’s silly filters—we are not all sad or all happy at the appropriate times—as they deal process and deal with what they’ve been through.

And in Las Vegas, we saw the absolutely stark transition from what Snap Maps was advertised to be—a great tool for watching concerts you aren’t at—to one of the darkest moments in modern American life. We saw people not comprehending, or not really noticing, when the gunfire started over the sound of the music. We saw people screaming at others to get down, to lay motionless. We saw others confused why national guardsmen were walking through their casinos, why they were being told to shelter in place.

It’s difficult to watch images like these. They’re intimate, and close to the action. You can see fear up close. But it’s also difficult to watch images like these and not feel empathy for those in these situations. It’s easy to dissociate what we see on the nightly news, when footage is edited, and perhaps dramatized to keep people hooked on that channel, from our own lives. That is happening elsewhere, on my TV. Maybe you post about it, donate some money, but it’s not greatly affected your life. You move on.

But watching regular people dramatically shift from their regular lives to tragic situations as they happen is different than watching a recap later on the news. Anyone who has used Snapchat has likely gotten a snap from a friend at a concert, petting a dog, seeing family, or out at the bar, or eating a meal. These daily minutiae are the sorts of things that everyone experiences, and it feels easier to empathize with people that appear to just be going about their lives as you might.

Perhaps experiencing tragedy through a simulacrum of real life will lead others to think more about the way they lead their own lives—and how quickly that can change—and about the views that they hold.