How Snapchat Stories Became a Universal Format That Won’t Ever Go Away

You’re stuck with Fleets, and maybe that’s not all bad

Image: Twitter

Do you remember the internet before Stories?

When Snapchat introduced Stories in 2014, the format was novel but niche: It provided a new way to view pictures and video by tapping back and forth in full screen, an experience that fit smartphones better than anything that had come before it. Now, it feels like “Stories” are showing up everywhere.

In the six years since the format’s debut, it’s been adopted at an astonishing rate in almost every popular app, from Instagram to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google results, and beyond. The Stories format is now owned by nobody, transcending its creator entirely to become even more important: a user experience (UX) pattern easily adopted by anyone for visual content.

There are endless jokes and memes about what the next app to get the Stories treatment will be: Microsoft Excel, Visual Studio Code, maybe even your next calculator. Those jokes, however, reveal something bigger — Stories have become a universally understood format. If you see a round avatar with a thin colorful line around it, you know what it means: Tap here to see photos, videos, and an experience that will fill your smartphone display rather than a scrolling timeline.

As the user experience of apps and websites evolves constantly, it’s easy to forget that subtle inventions can change the entire way we think about designing and building them. Before infinite scrolling was first conceived in 2006, you would reach the end of a website or timeline and need to click “next page” to keep going, an idea that feels archaic now. Before 2008, when Loren Brichter invented “pull to refresh” in his Twitter client, Tweetie, you needed to refresh the entire page to see what was new.

The Stories format changed everything because it was the first new UX pattern that felt at home on smartphones.

Back then, vertically scrolling timelines like those still used by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were the norm; they worked well when they were invented for desktop computers, so when smartphones came along, social networks just squished the same format into their mobile apps. Pull to refresh and infinite scrolling caught on like wildfire on touch-enabled devices because they added a mobile-first pattern that users quickly understood and felt natural rather than wasting valuable screen space dedicated to a refresh button.

The Stories format came along at just the right moment when these scrolling timelines saturated every app and smartphones were reaching critical mass. Every year, phone cameras were getting more impressive, and people finally gained access to enough mobile data to want to post their photos online, in real time, to share a moment with friends.

Around this time, much ink was being spilled over the shift to photos and videos being shot in portrait, with everyone from tech writers to camera enthusiasts complaining about how cameras are supposed to be used in landscape mode. The comments on any YouTube video shot in portrait mode from that time would often be filled with people complaining that the uploader had filmed the wrong way around. There are even memes about people doing it wrong.

But those commenters, and everyone else making fun of the shift, were pretty much wrong: In 2020, portrait has become the default, in no small part thanks to Stories’ domination on every social media platform. Rather than forcing people to rotate their phones to watch a video properly, the Stories format finally acknowledged the reality that more than 80% of phone users hold their phone in portrait most of the time, with few people bothering to rotate when watching landscape content.

I’d argue that the addition of Fleets gave Twitter a new dimension overnight: a peek inside people’s actual lives rather than the hot takes, arguments, and reply guys.

The Stories format changed everything because it was the first new UX pattern that felt at home on smartphones. It filled the screen, felt dynamic, and gave creators a new canvas. Stories, regardless of where they appear, are remixes of the same intuitive core design patterns: tap on the right of the screen to go forward, the left to go back, or drag to exit entirely. There’s also a built-in expectation — anything posted to a Stories stream disappears at some point, making people more likely to share.

When Twitter launched its own riff on the format, Fleets, people were quick to ridicule the company for copying the Stories format, questioning whether we needed yet another carbon copy when we can already find them elsewhere. I’d argue, however, that the addition of Fleets gave Twitter a new dimension overnight: a peek inside people’s actual lives rather than the hot takes, arguments, and reply guys.

Regardless of whether you like it, the fact that Twitter could launch Fleets and graft it to the top of its existing app and that people understood it immediately without needing a tutorial, speaks to how ubiquitous Stories have truly become — and that they’re here to stay until we invent something else.

Like with every new UX pattern, some companies will launch their own soulless versions of Stories that make no sense, but that’s part of the package as everyone rushes to get in on the new trend. Some of them will stick; others will quietly remove them as users ignore them.

When Snapchat invented Stories, it likely didn’t anticipate creating a new format that would transcend itself, even beyond Facebook’s shameless cloning of the feature. Like with pull to refresh and creations before it, we’ll forget it was ever any other way and accept Stories wherever they show up — even if it’s in Microsoft Excel.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd

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