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The Incredible Disappearing Social Network

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In the fall of 2012, Sally Ike, a senior at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., heard from a friend about a hilarious new app you could download on your smartphone. Snapchat was free, her friend explained, and allowed you to share photos. And like a lot of photo apps, it was simple: just shoot and send. The hook was that when your friend opened the message, the photo self-destructed within 10 seconds.

At first, Ike thought Snapchat was pretty dumb. She was applying for college, co-editing the high school newspaper, and playing on the ultimate Frisbee team. She was busy. Snapchat seemed pointless. Yet as the fall semester turned into winter, Snapchat grew more and more popular at Columbia High. All day at school "snaps" were flying in every direction. Kids loved to send them back and forth in class. Some teachers banned smartphones during instruction, so you had to be careful. But if you cupped your phone in your palm under the desk with the screen facing up at you, it was no problem.

People kept sending Ike snaps, and the more she played with the app, the more it grew on her. Now she uses it all the time like everyone else. Opening a Snapchat, she says, feels like unwrapping a present. You never know what you're going to get. Since the messages quickly disappear, there's no pressure to look cool. People send pictures of themselves making ridiculous faces, smiling like maniacs, sticking out their tongues, giving the stink-eye, sprouting feathers (you can doodle on Snapchat pictures), whatever. You can send videos, too. If someone cheats and tries to take a screenshot of your snap for posterity, the app notifies the sender. Getting caught, says Ike, is a major faux pas. "I was thinking about it today, how next year when I go away to college it will be nice," she says. "You actually get to see the friend's face for a quick 10 seconds. It's more personal than a text."

In the U.S., Snapchat was the second-most popular free photo and video app for the iPhone in early February, just behind YouTube and ahead of Instagram. It was the 19th-most popular free app overall, according to App Annie, an analytics company. Snapchat's website claims that more than 50 million snaps are sent every day.

It's made rivals anxious enough to build similar products. In December social networking giant Facebook (FB) unveiled a Snapchat-like app called Poke that allows users to send self-destructing media. Instead of burying Snapchat, however, the competition from Facebook appears to have made the upstart stronger. In January tech industry blog TechCrunch named Snapchat the "Fastest Rising Startup" of 2012.

Snapchat was born in the spring of 2011 in a frat house. At the time, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy were undergraduates at Stanford University and brothers at Kappa Sigma. Spiegel was studying engineering; Murphy, computer science. The pair envisioned making a smartphone app for their friends who wanted to socialize online with no lasting record or repercussions. They were inspired, they would later explain, by anguished stories they'd heard over the years about people scrambling to delete or de-tag unflattering photos before the snapshots circulated too far on social networks and appeared on search results forever. (Spiegel, who runs the company out of his dad's house in Pacific Palisades, Calif., did not respond to several interview requests. Murphy could not be reached; e-mailed requests to the company for comment were not returned.)

Spiegel and Murphy's timing was excellent. As they worked on a prototype over the summer, then-Congressman Anthony Weiner was in the news because of some indiscreet photo-sharing with women he met on Twitter, and career-immolation-by-selfie was on everyone's mind. Snapchat launched on Apple's (AAPL) App Store that fall and downloads soon soared. "Snapchat isn't about capturing the traditional Kodak moment," Spiegel wrote on the company blog in May 2012. "It's about communicating with the full range of human emotion—not just what appears to be pretty or perfect. Like when I think I'm good at imitating the face of a star-nosed mole, or if I want to show my friend the girl I have a crush on."

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(Image credit: Technorati)

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