The Broadcast Problem

In which I ramble on for a while before concluding nothing. You’ve been warned.

Snapchat and Facebook

Snapchat is quickly becoming my go-to communication tool for sharing moments with close friends. There’s a certain intimacy to it: just you and your chosen few recipients get to see the picture for a short while. It’s a way to show off your interesting life without inconsiderately clogging up others’ newsfeeds. A way to send photos of yourself drunkenly wearing a lampshade without worrying about your boss or parents seeing it.

It’s a broadcast medium with a specific range. However, you don’t know who else got a copy of the snap as well. The question this blog post poses is: Is it impolite to not respond to a snapchat? Let’s take a look at some similar media.

Facebook – for me – is becoming a place to share memes and interesting internet finds, not moments from my life. It’s broadcast is powerful – without carefully choosing your settings, it’s easy for your photos to become globally available. Any of your friends (which these days includes parents, coworkers, and random business contacts) can go through your photos. There are ways to tailor your security but they’re often obtuse or difficult to get at.

Posting on Facebook is a broadcast with a large range. You assume that everyone’s friends can see a given post. If someone doesn’t specifically mention you, there’s no social penalty for not commenting on or “liking” a post.

SMS, IM (incl. Facebook Chat), and Email are direct message systems. When you get one, the assumption is that you are the only recipient unless it directly says otherwise. These more direct forms of communication create a one-on-one channel between the sender and recipient that have social weight – not replying to one is rude.

Broadcast and Direct Message

When choosing whether to reply to messages, people consider how direct the original message was. This metric, “replies”, is important in the social media world – especially that of dating applications – because it measures how much interaction users are having.

My cursory research for this article doesn’t turn up much in this realm of prior research, so I’m going to go ahead and make an unfounded claim based purely on my own observations: The more direct a message, the more likely a person is to respond. A somewhat spammy marketing article boasts a 50% response rate to Twitter DMs where they use the username in the message. That’s crazy good.

Why is a DM so much better than just an @-mention? While DMs do require the users to be following each other (meaning there’s already an element of trust), a DM is also only visible to the messagers. If I get an @-mention on Twitter I’ll only respond if I’m particularly in the mood to or if I have something to say about it. If I get a DM I’ll at least make a note to reply to it later.

With these direct messages, there’s a social stigma to not replying since it means you got the message but chose not to respond. With a broadcast, it’s always easy enough to claim that it was lost in the sea of other broadcasts. In most apps, there’s no way to verify that a specific friend saw a broadcast message.

Snapchat sits in the awkward in-between here. You can see if a friend has opened your message. But Snapchats are also often sent to large groups of users at the same time. Let’s investigate further.

Public and Private

Voice to text is far faster and more accurate than typing on my soft keyboard, but I choose to fat-finger my way though the words because speaking out loud broadcasts what I want to be private. The people around me aren’t interested in my mundane texts, and I find it as impolite as talking on a cellphone to say them out loud. These are private messages – not because they’re risque, but because they’re not interesting to anyone else.

You can’t tell who else a Snapchat has been sent to; when you get one, there’s no way to see how public or private that information is. Especially with very interesting Snaps, (“Hey look at me doing this cool thing”), I assume that a large portion of the sender’s contact list just felt a buzzing in their pocket.

Facebook is “public”. IM, Email, SMS are private. Snapchat is… kind of both?

Conclusion: Does Snapchat Bridge or Widen this Gap?

In my opinion, Snapchat is a broadcast and not a direct message, so it doesn’t warrant a response. Greta, my fiancee, argues the opposite – each snap appears as a direct message despite its actual dispersal. So… who’s right?

Per my warning at the beginning of this post, I don’t know, and I would love to find out. For Snapchat users: do you feel obligated to reply to snaps?

What kind of messages should people be obliged to respond to?

One thought on “The Broadcast Problem

  1. Phil

    I would say that It is never ‘rude’ to not reply to someone’s snap unless they are looking for a response. I wouldn’t find it rude to not respond to anything without added text or anything that is also posted through other media. Depending on the context of the snap I would imagine it would be fairly clear if the sender is looking for a response. A pic of dinner might not warrant a response, however the added text ‘look what I made’ would be something to respond to.


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