Not long ago, a friend put a romantic quandary to the collective consciousness of our group text: How should she go about turning a man she sometimes flirts with on social media into a new sexting buddy — or, at least, indicate her interest to him without bluntly asking if he’d like to see her tits? I responded instinctively, because I had successfully completed the same conversion a month before: Add him on Snapchat and see what happens. If he adds you back but doesn’t make a move, send him a flirty, quasi-suggestive snap and, again, see what happens. Maybe try the puppy filter — it makes your skin look great.
Everyone else in the group text agreed immediately, and within a couple days, my friend had success. It was the latest proof of something I’ve long known to be true: Beyond its facility for relatively low-risk sexting, Snapchat is, bar none, the best way to flirt with someone online. This is true even if you’re much older than the app’s devoted audience of teens and early 20-somethings. In fact, it might work even better for those outside Snapchat’s core demographic; everything about the service primes its users to be a little sillier and more off the cuff than they are on traditional social media, which can help loosen up people whose public missives are usually made under the possible surveillance of a wrathful ex or a watchful employer.
I downloaded Snapchat a couple years ago but never paid it much attention until early last year, when I became romantically involved with a man who used it regularly. Our situation didn’t last, but I had seen the light all the same. The app’s informality, silliness, and naked encouragement of thirst felt like a breath of fresh air for me, as someone whose day-to-day social-media activity had begun to take on the grim tone that would only deepen as the year and presidential election wore on. After that first Snapchat dalliance, I briefly found myself without anyone to flirt with on the app, but that resolved itself a couple weeks later when a man I had been friendly with on Twitter for about a year added me. It wasn’t long before my suspicions about what that might indicate were confirmed: He and his longtime girlfriend had split up and he thought I was cute. Gerard, 25, said he often feels similarly when a man suddenly follows him on Snap. “Listen, everyone knows what goes down,” he explained. “We’re all adults here. It means a man is not only curious to know what I put on Snapchat that he can’t find on my Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or whatever, but also curious to know what I’ll do when a message disappears after I send it.” The implications of simply adding someone on the app are a flirtatious signal in and of themselves.
Unlike other popular social networks, Snapchat feels largely private. This is true for reasons beyond the central features that created its early reputation as a sexting app for horny teens: the fact that direct snaps disappear after ten seconds at most, and that anything added to a public “story” is gone in 24 hours. In addition to those widely known quirks, the only way to see someone’s story is to follow them — there’s no lurking — and the only way to search for users to follow is to know their exact handle or have their phone number already saved as a contact on your phone. My friend Andrea, 27, figured out a smart way to exploit this feature while online dating. “If I have a guy’s number from Tinder, sometimes I’ll prematurely save it on my phone so it comes up in Snapchat if he uses it. I probably won’t add him immediately, but I’ll try and deduce his Instagram or other handles from his Snapchat one.”
No one can see whether a user follows, snaps with, or views the stories of any third parties. All of these virtual walls make even the act of adding someone on Snapchat feel especially pointed, like you’re inviting someone to step into a private room with you. Snapchat is an order of magnitude more intimate than chatting with someone via Twitter DM or Facebook Messenger. After years of popularity, Snapchat only got around to launching a group-messaging feature a few weeks ago — otherwise, basically all interactions are between a viewer and the person being viewed.
And then there’s the layer of meta-information Snapchat provides on each interaction. Not only do you get a push notification when you receive a message, you also get one when someone begins typing a message to you. This allows you to be an active participant in a conversation that hasn’t technically even happened yet. If you choose to tap on the notification, the person typing to you sees an emoji appear in the text box that shrinks to a blue dot to indicate you’re present and waiting for their message; the blue dot remains until you exit the chat box. You also get notifications if the person you’re snapping with screenshots or replays a snap, as well as if someone screenshots something from your public story. The sheer volume of information the app provides makes it impossible to play it cool, and eventually, everyone stops trying. Go ahead, replay that cute selfie.
All of this information is totally or mostly lacking when texting or using other popular messaging apps. Making it a shared part of the interaction gives life to some of the nonverbal cues that disappear when you aren’t talking to someone in person. It’s still digital, though, which can soothe the anxiety that often comes with in-person communication early in a new flirtation — and which is helpful when you’re getting to know someone, and gauging how they’ll react to your first advances.
Aidan, 34, prefers Snapchat to regular texting because all the extra information helps move conversations along: “The short videos can be somewhat of a tease, but it does give an immediacy and real-time feel that regular texting lacks somehow.” When you can’t just stare at a photo or loop a video for a minute or two, when you know the person you’re chatting with has the text box open and is waiting, you’re more likely to return quickly to the interaction. That works to mimic the pace and intimacy of bantering with someone in person, which can be one of the most alienating things lost when early courtship happens through other social networks or dating apps. If the other person gets an alert that you’re typing, and if you know your slightly-too-corny jokes will disappear after you close the app, there’s not much advantage to over-editing your messages or obsessing over whether or not your quip ten minutes ago landed the right way. You just have to get on with it.
Like any new form of intimate interaction, though, Snapchat is not without its own set of risks. The simple interface can be nonintuitive at first. Most commands in the app happen through buttons or gestures that are unlabeled, which creates a learning curve; and there are few barriers to accidentally sending a racy photo or message to the wrong person in your contacts, or to your public “story.” The feeling of privacy can also lull you into a false sense of security, a belief that no one will ever learn what you’re doing with anyone else. Matt, 34, found himself in a little trouble after using Snapchat for a few months: “I was sexting with two different people who I didn’t know knew each other in real life. They did, and I eventually came up in conversation. I got busted and called out for it — that was a hell of a day.” Also, if you grant the premise of Snapchat as an intimate place, then you have to contend with what it means when someone excludes you from it. Andrea ran into that with a man she dated recently. “I saw he did have Snapchat but I didn’t think he used it. Then he was over at my apartment and I saw him checking his friends’ snaps. I was like, well, I guess he doesn’t really like me or else he probably would have added me on this app.”
Snapchat, in all its lurid sexting glory, might seem like an odd place to forge silly, kind, flirtatious romantic connections. But that’s only true if the version of sexting you conjure is the activity in its basest form. Spaces that foster a sense of intimacy — digital or otherwise — always offer an opportunity for something good to be cultivated, even if it’s done while wearing an unrealistic virtual flower crown. Snapchat is particularly good at feeling like a means to an end instead of an end unto itself. After all, when everything disappears, there’s nothing left but to take the next step.