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Snapchat’s controversial emoji update: An explainer for the old and/or confused

A billboard displays the logo of Snapchat above Times Square in New York on March 12, 2015. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
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Nothing prematurely ages you quite like social media. Are you upset about the big Snapchat update? No, okay, you’re probably old.

You didn’t hear about the update? Positively ancient.

You don’t even use Snapchat?!?!??! Dinosaur!!

Allow me to inform you, oh fossilized one, that Snapchat yesterday made some changes to its popular messaging app, which have become something of a flash point among the teenage set. But if you’re older than, say, 17, the very substantive, concerning implications of the update are not apparent immediately. Below, an explainer for the olds (a.k.a. everybody.).

What is Snapchat?

Snapchat is, at its face, an ephemeral messaging app that lets you send fun, momentary photos and messages to your friends. Friends can see your messages only for a minute: After one to 10 seconds, the message disappears. That makes it perfect for sexting and casual life-casting alike; if you logged into the average teen’s Snapchat, I suspect you’d be bored by the inside-jokey, superimposed-emoji, selfie-filled monotony of it all.

That said, Snapchat has never been just a messaging app. Since its early days, the app has included a feature called “best friends” — basically, a public list of who exchanges the most messages with you. That may seem kind of secondary or incidental to the whole messaging thing, but when you think about it, it’s also a pretty powerful social signal. There are virtually no other social apps that quantify and publicize private interactions like that.

Predictably, since 45 percent of Snapchat’s userbase is under age 24, the “best friends” list became an important kind of social score.

What did this big “emoji update” change?

The “emoji update” basically got rid of the “best friends” list and replaced it with a whole new system for measuring social hierarchy. This information is no longer public. But it is significantly more detailed and complicated: Instead of just telling you whom you snap with the most, the new system tells you whom you snap most who doesn’t most snap you; who snaps the most with someone you snap a lot, too; and whether the person you snap most also snaps most with you. (In teen-speak, this person is your “BAE.” We’ll leave that explainer for another day.)

Each type of newly tracked relationship is coded by an emoji, which now appear on users’ “friends” tab. Behold:

Snapchat will also begin telling you whom you don’t snap very often, under the semi-pathetic heading “needs love.”

Why is the emoji update a big deal to users?

Well, if you followed the previous answer, you get that Snapchat is essentially giving people a lot of (admittedly vague) data on their social capital. Suddenly users can see — in hard, cruel emoji — that their significant other snaps more with somebody else or that they aren’t all that popular among their own close friends. The reverse is true, too, of course. But in either case, it’s hard to see the emoji update as anything more than a cynical popularity contest.

That explains the outrage among many of Snapchat’s teen users, who — to quote from Twitter — are concerned about “snapchat lettin you know who bae is and if you are bae’s bae,” among many other things. The Daily Dot went so far as to call the Snapchat update the start of “a teen caste system.”

Remember that climactic scene in “Mean Girls” in which Regina spreads the “Burn Book” around, and everyone learns where they rank vis-a-vis the popular girls? That’s this, basically. In a manner of speaking.

Was Snapchat trying to change the social hierarchy on its app?

Presumably not! In fact, the change was a pretty savvy business move on the part of Snapchat, which — like all social networks — is primarily concerned with getting people to spend more time in its app. The new emoji system, which rewards users with explicit social validation for snapping more people more often, certainly marks a step toward that.

After all, under the old system, you’d still have “best friends” even if you rarely snapped. But under the new system, unless you snap frequently, Snapchat will kindly point out that your cooler, hipper friends have moved on to someone else. AJ Dellinger at Digital Trends describes it as the gamification of social interaction: “a subtle psychological prodding to encourage users to keep sending snaps.”

Do all social apps manipulate us like this?

Basically, yes: Almost every social network uses these kinds of game-based psychological incentives to get you to engage, even if you don’t realize it. On Facebook, those incentives come in the form of notifications: Facebook constantly gives you real-time, numerical feedback on your site behavior, a gentle push toward posting and “liking” and friending more. On sites such as Yelp and Foursquare, users can earn badges and membership into elite clubs simply by using the site frequently.

In 2013, a polarizing app called Kahnoodle took the concept even further: Through a system of coupons, push notifications and other incentives, it explicitly promised to “gamify” affection in romantic relationships. Its creators insisted that it was good for couples, but that kind of obscures the app’s real goals.

“Gamification is a strategy of capitalism,” the German researcher Daphne Dragona wrote in 2011, “and its honest aim is to engage people in certain behaviours that connect to services or products.”

Bottom line: The teens aren’t being crazy and drama, after all?

I mean, the teens are always crazy. But Snapchat’s emoji update is as good a prompt as any to think seriously about how social networks manipulate us and our relationships — and why, exactly, they’re doing it.

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