Snapchat could be valued at more than $20 billion in an initial public offering this week. But that lofty figure might rapidly sink if the app doesn't keep adding users.
The popular photo and video messaging app, owned by parent company Snap Inc., boasts 158 million daily active users — most of them young.
The vast majority are 13 to 34 years old, with 18- to 24-year-olds making up the largest segment. The Times interviewed six of them — high school and college students involved in its High School Insider program — to find out what gets them to open the app and what turns them off.
These teen users are valuable to Snap because they're valuable to advertisers. They also interact with the app the most: Users 24 and younger visit it more than 20 times a day and spend at least 30 minutes there, while those 25 and older log 12 visits lasting a total of 20 minutes, according to Snap.
Here's how they use Snapchat:
The basic functions — snap and chat — remain popular
Texting and snapping (sending photos or videos adorned with filters or sketches) were the most commonly used features.
"I enjoy the ability to directly send messages to others, and 'streaks' because they offer a good excuse to talk to people," said Zena Meyer, a senior at Orange County School of the Arts, referring to a running count of how many consecutive days two users have chatted on the app.
Users were divided on whether they texted or sent photos and videos more often, but said they did both more often than watching "stories" — collections of snaps posted by friends or media publishers that are available for viewing for 24 hours.
"My friends and I usually start a conversation first with a photo, and then usually keep the conversation by texting through Snapchat," said Simone Chu, a senior at Arcadia High School.
Snapchat benefits from these back-and-forth conversations because each message drives a visit back to the application.
Snapchat is seen as different from — and sometimes preferable to — Facebook
"Snapchat is probably my single most favorite social media platform," said Joey Safchik, a senior at CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts. "It combines texting, FaceTiming, and the photographic charm of Instagram."
It's an attitude shared by more young users than older ones. Sixteen percent of users under 30 say Snapchat is their favorite app, compared to just 3% of users over 30, according to a report by Goodwater, a research firm.
Some users said Snapchat doesn't measure popularity, in contrast to Facebook.
"I don't think it really matters how many friends you have on Snapchat," said Chu. "There's no way to publicly tell...so this is a platform that doesn't really fuel that need for 'likes' that some people have."
Snapchat is also perceived as more authentic since the app favors spur-of-the-moment posts rather than carefully edited selections.
"I consider it digital honesty, which is hard to find in a web of fake profiles and manipulated photos," said Camille Marquez, a sophomore at Arcadia.
"There is a sense that Snapchat is a better reflection of your 'real' life whereas Facebook and Instagram portray only an embellished life," said the Goodwater report.
Some users, though, feel that sense of authenticity is fading.
Emma Anderson, now a freshman at UC Irvine, downloaded Snapchat when she was in the eighth grade, primarily using it to exchange photos and videos with friends. What she loved most was the spontaneity and anything-goes ethos of snaps.
"Snapchat was the raw, unfiltered gem of social media," Anderson said. "My favorite snaps were 10-second videos of friends singing off-key at karaoke bars or stage diving during a punk concert at the Smell."
But after Snap introduced filters, replays and stories, Anderson said the app lost its appeal, becoming more like Instagram. "Filtered images are almost contradictory to Snapchat," she said. "If you're sharing personal moments with your friends, there is no need to add color filters."
She began using the app less and less, finally deleting it last week. Now she Skypes with friends when she can't see them in person.
Young people get news from Stories
Users said they were more likely to read news articles from Buzzfeed than watch live coverage of events like New York Fashion Week in stories. Both types of content — articles by media outlets and clips produced by Snap staff at live events — are available side by side in Snapchat's Discover feature.
"I spend a lot of time looking at the 'stories' from CNN and Buzzfeed," said Safchik. "It's the best way to easily ingest quick news or pass the time with quizzes and such."
Young users said they mostly followed their real-world friends on stories, rather than celebrities.
According to the Goodwater survey, users under 30 years old were more likely to use a stories function in any social photo app, and they vastly preferred the Snapchat version to the Instagram version.
They’re wary of features that diverge from the core product
None of the high schoolers interviewed said they had used Spectacles — Snap's video camera sunglasses — with one citing the gadget's cost ($130) as a primary deterrent.
Nor did they think they would turn to Snapchat for longer videos or for search capabilities, though the company has made initial forays into both.
"Simpler is better," said Marquez. "Snapchat would lose its uniqueness if it started implementing features that were already in use."
Kate Sequeira, a senior at San Dieguito Academy, was skeptical Snap could compete.
"I don't think Snapchat could replace anything along the lines of YouTube or Google," she said.
Sequeira said she usually keeps the sound off on her phone and hardly ever watches videos, so the availability of more video on Snapchat wouldn't appeal to her.
And Sequeira said she sees Snapchat only as a social media tool.
"I don't think I would consider it as reliable as Google even if it were to have similar abilities," she said. "To me it would be like using Bing or Yahoo instead of Google."