The real reason why millennials love Snapchat

December 23, 2013: 6:00 AM ET

All this talk about "ephemerality" is silly. Snapchat's true brilliance is in its creative capabilities.

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FORTUNE -- One day last December, while on vacation, I whipped out my cell phone in a moment of boredom, held it in front of my face, and took an unflattering selfie.

It didn't end there. My finger became a magical stylus, tapping and swiping my phone's display to decorate my contorted face and double-chin with streaks of color. In moments, I transformed my digitized self into an aqua-haired Troll doll. Then I pressed send, transmitting my masterpiece to several friends with only this explanation: "loungin'." (Okay, I included some sun emoji, too.) It was weird, random, and unlike any form of communication I had ever experienced.

In other words: Snapchat was awesome.

MORE: Countdown to the Snapchat revolution

Since that moment, the photo-sharing app has become a regular part of my life; I snap more than I text. My friends use Snapchat as frequently, sending a perfect mix of self-destructing pictures and videos. Though each person expresses themselves differently on the platform, there's a common reaction when viewing each message in my SnapChat inbox: "WTF?!", followed by a laugh.

The recent wave of news coverage of Snapchat focuses on the startup's photo ephemerality: Pictures are taken, and then they disappear. In the age of Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR), twentysomethings and teens are said to like it because they can share their "youthful indiscretions" without a trace. "A racy communication tool that left no fingerprints suddenly looked attractive," writes my Fortune colleagues in our most recent issue. They're totally right. When I applied to college in 2006, Facebook was only for people with university e-mail addresses. By the time I applied for jobs in 2011, my mom was an avid Facebooker, and her co-workers' Farmville updates crowded my Newsfeed. Today, anyone and everyone easily uses the social network. (I can't even imagine being a high school senior in this sort of environment.)

There is some truth to young people gravitating toward the next new thing. But the obsession with Snapchat on the basis of its ephemerality sells the service short. The app's drawing and text capabilities make its pictures and videos worthwhile. When a friend clued me in the palette's secrets -- like how to draw in black and white -- I was more excited than when I discovered the "rosebud" cheat for The Sims video game in the seventh grade. (Mansions for everyone!) In my experience, Snapchat users often take screenshots of particularly impressive snaps and post them on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, rendering Snapchat's self-destructing aspect moot. (This is one of many, many reasons why people should never snap-sext. But I digress.)

MORE: A word is worth 1,000 selfies

Snapchat is great because of the creativity it fosters. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter users look for self-reinforcement, curating their social appearance to gain "likes" and followers. Snapchat isn't about numbers; it's about individual communication. Which is why, more often than not, people who use Snapchat let their freak flags fly. (So to speak.)

Without Snapchat's drawing and text overlay features, I doubt the service would be half as sticky with millennials. Yes, the pictures disappear. But a hilarious drawing or comment accompanying a picture will undoubtedly be captured and shared on countless other platforms. The quirkier, the better. For now, Snapchat is nothing more than entertainment. That's fine. But marketers should take note: There was a time when social media managers were considered dead, but the title and job remains surprisingly resilient. I can't say I'd be shocked if, in the future, "Snapper-in-residence" makes it onto the job requirements list.

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About This Author
Colleen Leahey
Colleen Leahey
Fortune

Colleen Leahey joined Fortune in May 2011 to cover leadership, technology, and small business. She also focuses on building the Fortune Most Powerful Women franchise in the digital and live media space and manages programming for the MPW Summit. Previously, Colleen worked at The New Yorker and Bicycling magazine. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and lives in Manhattan.

Email Colleen Leahey | @cmleahey
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