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Can Snapchat's New 'Snap Map' Bring The World Closer Together?

Snapchat users can upload photos and videos onto the new Snap Map. When a topic is trending, it'll pop up on a heat map. The image above is a composite of Snapchat screen grabs.
Shelby Knowles/NPR

Tap into Snapchat's newest feature, Snap Map, and get a peek into people's lives around the world. You might see a woman playing with her puppies in Guatemala or a view from the car window on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

They're called snaps — these ten-second video clips or photos that disappear after a day. To take a look, pinch two fingers on the app's main screen. A world map will open up with a heat map of snaps that submitted to a public stream in the last 24 hours. The biggest hot spots are in North America, Europe and the Arabian Peninsula.

There's something incredible about this, says Jill Walker Rettberg, a professor of digital culture at the University of Bergen in Norway. "You can see the whole world. You can see life in a community you might not see otherwise," she says.

The notion that the map could foster a global community or sense of togetherness was important in Snap Map's development, a Snapchat spokesperson told Goats and Soda.

Snaps are so often the most quotidian scenes that you'd see in the U.S. — only they're happening abroad: silly faces at happy hour, snippets from long car rides, a man salivating over a blurry plate of rice and meat in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, a woman trying to coax a squirrel over with food in Mexico City.

"There was only one snap from Syria — a kid doing something cute and the mother, you could tell, was saying something like, 'isn't my kid cute?' That was from Aleppo," Rettberg says. "That's a different version than we're getting from the news, but it's a valuable version."

This close look into the lives of strangers might teach us something about each other, Rettberg thinks. "It feels like an intimate way of learning about [others]."

But Rettberg says there's also a voyeuristic aspect of it. Unlike typical Snapchat usage, where users can chat with their friends, there's no way to interact with users on Snap Map. They're just feeding content one way by selecting "Our Story" when sharing a photo or video.

Snapchat does filter content that goes on the map, as it does with Snapchat's Live Stories, a feature that allows users to share themed content like "Christmas" or "Pride Parade" in a public stream. A Snapchat spokesperson told Goats and Soda that in events like terror attacks, a team will manually curate and add important contextual details. In addition, Snapchat would bar any kind of hate speech or private or personal images taken without a subject's clear consent.

But clearly inflammatory content has leaked out of Snapchat onto the internet in the past. For instance, Ipswich Town soccer player Harry Wright snapped a selfie after the Manchester, U.K., bombing in May with the caption: "In Manchester with the bombs but still having a belta [British slang for something amazing] with my main man joe [sic]." It wasn't until later, after a highly publicized outcry, that Wright apologized for the comment that many saw as "insensitive."

Rettberg thinks there might be a danger if similar or even violently explicit images made it into a public stream like Snap Map. "Next time there's a terrorist attack, what will people do? There will be snaps on the map and everyone will be looking at it," Rettberg says. "Is that good? Is it bad? I don't know," Rettberg says.

Still, maybe there is an element of hope in all of this. I watched a snap of two teenagers goofing off on a roof in Jordan. The cameraman zoomed in on his friend's face, who stared into the eye of the camera with a slightly awkward smile frozen on his face. Yeah, that's me too.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Angus Chen
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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