Tuesday 10 December 2019

'There's a very real hole in my life right now' - confessions of a 44-year old Snapchat addict

It's the social media app revered by the teens and twentysomethings - but Snapchat is not just for snowflakes argues Rhona McAuliffe. Here, she documents how her virtual friendships have filled a real hole in her life

Rhona McAuliffe admits Snapchat fills a void for her. Photo: Mark Condren
Rhona McAuliffe admits Snapchat fills a void for her. Photo: Mark Condren
Rhona is a fan of James Kavanagh
Snapchat star Claire Fullam. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Rhona McAuliffe. Photo: Mark Condren

This is a cold, hard admission to make and paints me as an anti-social, under-stimulated screen addict, but sure look, - as Claire Fullam would say, - you can't win at everything.

The truth is, there's a very real hole in my life right now and Snapchat is plugging that void with quick-fix, expandable foam. In the same way an emotional eater might sink a litre of Ben & Jerry's Cookie Dough ice-cream to still the beast, I tap the little ghost app on my phone.

First up, I'm not 18, I'm 44 and universally referred to as a woman though I still see myself as a girl, in the way Corkonians say girl - warm, sisterly, giddy - though I'm from Dublin. I don't find the term 'girl' infantilising or sexually suggestive - as many women do - but that could be where my problem starts. As playwright and novelist Bonnie Greer once put it: "A girl is someone who is not an adult, not a grown-up, is not someone who takes responsibility for herself." So, with that in mind, let's press on.

I love my friends. I've been woo-ing them since Montessori and always have room for a brand new chemical attraction. When you know, you just know. I don't have a squad, per se, more of a planetary sprawl of soul twins and favourite people; friendships cemented during childhood, college and work; people who are, without a doubt, my lifeline to sanity and joy.

Rhona is a fan of James Kavanagh
Rhona is a fan of James Kavanagh

The problem is, I barely see them. They're juggling jobs, kids, dogs, aging relatives, Tinder dates, partners, ex-partners and Netflix, all while hurtling towards an uncertain objective. Survival? Personal fulfilment? Sleep?

Or they live on different continents. Wherever they are, exchanges are limited to frenzied nights out or speed-dating lunches where topics are covered in bullet-pointed chunks until you're immersed in an abstract dissection of the Manson murders podcast. And then they're gone. You haven't even touched the sides.

If you're really lucky you might be in regular contact with maybe two friends and a sister, not including your work friends. But if you don't have work friends because you've been working from home for a year, your husband is regularly overseas, your kids refuse to be mined for casual chat, your Jack Russell sleeps in your bedroom and you barely answer your own front door so strong is your reclusive default…well, you see where that might go.

So, I can't entirely blame my busy friends, I've always been a borderline hermit. But let's just say that those craic-on-tap days of our 20s, pre kids, pre any serious responsibilities, have passed. And that scheduling time together that's not a birthday or Christmas dinner is bordering on greedy.

Before smart phones and the ubiquity of social media, I might have joined a book club or interpretative dance collective to get amongst it. Equally, I may have become a telly addict (I haven't watched TV for at least five years), knocked out a couple of novels or built a nuclear fall-out shelter. Instead, I plunged into Snapchat, the social platform where some people - the people I like - let it all hang out.

When Snapchat first launched in late 2011 it was quickly known as the 'sexting' app. The first version of the app had only one function: users could send images to each other that disappeared as soon as they were opened. It seemed a safe space to exchange explicit selfies, and later 10-second videos. That was until people started screen-grabbing the content, or filming it on another phone, and sharing it with third parties. Then Snapchat became known as the 'bullying' (and sexting) app.

Snapchat star Claire Fullam. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Snapchat star Claire Fullam. Photo: Steve Humphreys

By the time I opened an account, almost three years ago, the lure of Snapchat was its Stories feed. This is where the people you follow document, or 'Snap', their days, share their thoughts on trending topics or pedal their business. By clicking on each person's channel you play their last 24 hours' worth of content, which could be talk-to-camera video footage, a step-by-step shelf assembly guide, Snaps from a gig or a verruca extermination.

You can go full-Kardashian with your personality picks, filling your feed with the 'kooky,' irrelevant and heavily filtered lives of the rich and famous - or you can end up in the toilet with someone.

I don't want to see beauty tutorials, #fitspo diaries or be teased with an #ootd (outfit of the day) post over on Instagram; I don't want to sit through a single unboxing - a bizarre fetish where immaculately manicured bloggers painstakingly unwrap and gush over items they were gifted - or help someone else decide what (sponsored) trainers to wear today. It's not QVC, lads, it's entertainment. And I guess that's how Snapchat is different to other social platforms; it's not about following your friends - because most of your friends won't be generating compelling, daily content - it's about finding Snap-active personalities who you look forward to checking in with every day. Kind of like friends, right?

Some of the more enthusiastic Snapchatters say that they have grown their actual friendship group by taking part in weekly games like #FlashBackFriday and #TellTheTruthThursday, both set up by Karen @BlissBakery, an American-Irish blogger living in London. But that's not my thing. I'm very happy to be invisible, snorting with laughter like a dork from the edges of civilisation.

Having said that, I'm also not a 'lurker,' a term ascribed to the 90pc of social media users who are active but never engage with other users. If a story makes me laugh or cry or alters my opinion, I often send a direct message to the poster.

Finding your tribe is the tricky thing. You know pretty quickly if you're going to gel with someone or not and my first few weeks on Snapchat were spent adding and removing an endless stream of international, well-known or media-recommended Snappers. Interestingly, and through a process of elimination, I eventually committed to a small selection of Irish Snapchatters.

Rhona McAuliffe. Photo: Mark Condren
Rhona McAuliffe. Photo: Mark Condren

I follow people who are funny, who raise interesting personal and social issues, who are deep thinkers, strong personalities and always honest. They talk about bouncing back after serious illness, tell stories about a friend who shaved her own nipple off in the shower (a disastrous runaway razor) and pick through the utterly depressing message thread on their dating profile.

James Kavanagh, the undisputed 'King of Irish Snapchat' @JamesKSnaps, was an early favourite of mine. His Tuesday night sex-ed sessions were brilliant. He discussed everything from STIs to porn and the question of consent. The rapturous response from his huge teen following prompted calls from teachers (who are also followers) to dramatically overhaul how schools and parents talk to their kids about sex. He hosts tea-making tutorials, is a powerful anti-bullying advocate and is on his way to opening a new café, Curabinny, with his chef boyfriend, William. He's also just begun a presenting gig with Ireland's Got Talent.

The key with Snapchat, however, is finding these personalities early. James is very brand-friendly and deserves to be rewarded for his huge success but the regular #ad breaks can grate and do, to my mind, impact his 'real' content. They also remind me that he's not my mate. Why would my mate be selling me teeth whitening strips? (For the record, I know he's not my mate but while live radio was traditionally deemed to be the most 'personal' media - because you mostly listen alone, often on headphones and build a relationship with a particular show host - Snapchat takes that personal connection to the next level with a virtual FaceTime experience.)

Lindsay Hamilton - @mermaid ajade - is Ireland's bad gal Gwyneth Paltrow. A single mum to two kids and co-host of the ItGalz podcast, she's always entertaining. She talks Mooncups, blogger sorcery and useless exes when she's on the stir.

Alex - @happybeingme70 - a teen counsellor and dead-lifter in her mid-40s from Cork, started Snapping so that she could share her trek back to normality post-calling off her wedding just over a year ago. 
My favourite by far, and the only account I tap into every day, is Claire Fullam - @claire.balding. She started Snapping in 2016 when she lost 70pc of her hair to Alopecia areata. Despite enduring her 'worst year ever' she is still hands down the funniest person I know.

Now, I know I don't actually know her but by the time you've been on a couple of nights out with Kath and Kim - her work-mates, not the Australian sitcom legends - witnessed a Disney sing-along with her husband, Ian, and watched her nasal hair trimmer sputter and snarl as it pierces her septum, you're absolutely in. Whether she likes it or not.

Of course, I could look at YouTube for comedy, as I often do, instead, but it's not the same thing. Comedians suspend reality; their shows are meticulously written and performed, they're pros. The material is also finite.

Claire, on the other hand, riffs on the hop, dropping a steady flow of astute observations and first world irritants as she goes. She also cries and has crap days, like a real person.

Right now, she's part of the counter-collective calling out false advertising and dishonesty within the Irish influencer community. She is reminding her 30,000 followers that lip fillers and Velcro brows are not the answer; that carving your own path and not buying into the image-focused, materialistic, conservative ideals established by leading Irish influencers is the only way forward.

She is an agent for change and progress, a powerful (and hilarious) antidote to the Irish media's obsession with waxy women.

And much as I desperately want her to be signed up for a talk radio show - so she can learn the ropes and eventually move into a prime-time TV slot - the magic of her Snaps will be gone. She will be beholden to a national broadcaster, perched on a flood-lit, tangerine sofa with an old man by her side.

So, until I bring the hammer down on my fantasy life and commit to a total digital detox - by jaysis, it's looming - I'll continue to cackle at Fullam's Immac-slathered ronnie and her holidays from hell.

Yes, I could be calling my friends, inhaling a David Sedaris novel, watching my kids sleep or meditating. But the fact that I can eat my breakfast, cleanse my face, sit on the loo and watch a bit of Claire with no feedback required, is golden. Most of the time I am barely conscious that our relationship is not two-way.

That's not creepy at all, is it?

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