What began as a simple photo-messaging platform has since evolved into an app with endless features, providing users with social engagement, entertainment, and tabloid-esque news headlines. Snapchat users can now create personalized avatars called “bitmojis,” post to public stories, and even alter their appearances to resemble dogs. Each successive update has provoked reactions from the app’s ever-growing user base, but no update has garnered more criticism than the newest feature: Snap Maps. Despite the amounting critique, Snap Maps, if used correctly, can provide users with an opportunity to learn more about the world and keep a watchful eye on friends.
Snap Maps is a component of the app that displays a map of the world where app consumers can choose to see their friends’ locations. Users’ “bitmojis” are scattered across the map according to their current location. This location-sharing feature is completely voluntary, and by default, every user’s location is turned off. An individual has the option to share their location with their friends, select specific friends to share it with, or to remain invisible—an option known as “ghost mode.” When Snapchat released the update in June of 2017, they marketed it as a way to promote a greater global engagement. Whenever a user posts to “Our Story,” that story can be seen on that part of the map. Snapchat claims that the update was intended to connect people across the globe; however, users were quick to point out the many negative implications of this type of social media.
Snapchat is known for pushing the boundaries of privacy and security, but many argue that this update takes it too far. Publicizing people’s locations can potentially be dangerous, but, if used correctly, it can add to safety, particularly for college students. Did our friend leave the party? Where is your friend’s class—she forgot her assignment on her desk! I haven’t heard from my friend in several hours—where is she, is she alright? Defer to Snap Maps.
College students make up an important population of Snapchat’s user base. Snapchat has become the third most popular social media app among people aged 18 to 34. According to data collected by Martin-Wilbourn Partners, “Snapchat’s penetration is even more powerful among the coveted college-aged demographic, with 70% of college students reporting posting on Snapchat at least once a day compared to 11% reporting posting on Facebook with the same frequency.” This means that Snapchat is largely catering to college-age users in order to maintain their loyalties. Snap Maps is a perfect example of this. The application may be scary for the parents of young users, and it might be confusing for older users, but it is exactly what college-age users want and need.
Once Snap Maps is enabled, it tracks your location whenever you open the application. This means that friends can see where you are so long as you are in the app. When you are not active on Snapchat, it displays where you were when you last logged onto the app. Many see this as an enormous violation of privacy. The interface allows users to locate others down to the exact street of their residence. This is a particularly scary concept for the parents of Snapchat users, who are concerned about children being stalked or bullied online. This feature is also worrisome for older Snapchat users, who are concerned about the "Big Brother" implications of the innovation. While I do not believe that we are heading in the direction of an Orwell-style dystopia, I can see how the seeming lack of privacy could appear troublesome. It is important to remember that location information is not public; it can only be viewed by friends. Concern should not be on the efficacy of the app; rather, users should be cognizant of who their friends are.
The best way to use Snap Maps is to make sure that you know all of your “friends.” If you know your Snapchat friends and use the app in a safe way then there is nothing inherently dangerous about this feature. Snap Maps is a great way to see firsthand accounts of what is going on around the world, and it is an incredible tool for advanced connection. The app enables you to see what your friends are up to, so you in turn can provide a much needed finals study break or make sure they are safe after a night out. If the feature is unnerving to you, it is easy to disable the feature through ghost mode. If, however, you are comfortable with what the feature entails, then it can become a useful tool that has the power to enhance not only your Snapchat experience but your college experience as well.