Not everything on Snapchat disappears. As much as the app wants memories to span just 10 seconds and live for just 24 hours, one piece of content doesn’t self destruct. The profile GIF. And through its permanence, Snapchat has found a way solve a major problem with its identity system and social graph.
Snapchat quietly added the profile GIFs in July alongside the flashier shift from tap-and-hold-to-view to tap-to-view. When you swipe down from the Snapchat camera to the profile screen you’ll see your Snapcode QR code that others can scan with their Snapchat camera to follow you. But if you tap on the QR code, you can shoot a series of 5 selfies that Snapchat turns into an animated profile GIF. This appears inside the normally white body of the Snapchat ghost icon inside your Snapcode.
At first, the point seemed to be to customize your Snapcode. This encouraged people to share it more widely, getting more users following each other. This strengthening of the social graph is critical for the company, since following people fills its app with content that keeps you coming back.
But since then, I’ve realized there’s another important purpose for the profile GIFs. They appear in the Added Me list when you follow someone. Here’s why that matters.
Before, when someone added you on Snapchat, you knew nothing but their username. Due to the app’s inherently anonymous nature, younger user base that’s less interested in tying all their online identities together, and its racy reputation as a sexting app, many people’s usernames provide little hint to who they are. You often can’t even tell the gender or language of someone by their username.
This is a much bigger problem for Snapchat than other apps like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter where people typically have some public content or a real name available that informs whether you want to follow them. [Update: Facebook just added its own form of profile GIFs by letting you upload a 7-second video as your profile pic.]
The only thing you could do on Snapchat was to add them, then check to see if their Story was interesting (if they’ve posted in the last 24 hours) and then decide whether to unfollow them. That’s a lot of work. I’d bet a lot of people just never follow back rather than put in the effort. This is especially troublesome for more popular Snapchatters and creators that promote their accounts publicly and let anyone follow them. If you receive lots of new followers each day, there’s no efficient way to decide if you want to follow back.
But the profile GIF provides more transparency to someone’s identity.
Now in the Added Me list, you’ll see the profile GIFs of anyone who’s created one. Immediately, just the fact that someone has a profile GIF tells you they know their way around Snapchat, and they’re probably better at creating content. You’ll also get a peek at their identity. Selfies can tell you someone’s age, gender, and more. Personally, I find really little kids send me more low-quality snaps than older teens and young adults, so I don’t follow them back. And finally, you get a little taste of their style. Did they do something funny with their GIF? Did they try to tell a tiny story?
As Snapchat evolves to provide more forms of content, communication, and utility, the profile’s significance is sure to grow. I hope Snapchat introduces group video chat, and the profile GIFs could work well as a holding screen while you wait for people to join the call. Though the app began as bare-bones ephemeral messaging, it’s becoming the hub of youth communication. Permanent GIFs give profiles the substance necessary to be a foundation of that hub.