The next chapter of Snapchat’s life will begin over the coming months, as parent company Snap, Inc. goes public with an initial offering that could value the firm at approximately $20 billion. Success is far from certain: The Venice Beach, Calif.-based Snap has warned in investor documents that it could lose users to competitors with “greater resources and broader global recognition” — shorthand for the Facebook-owned Instagram. Snapchat’s once-meteoric growth is showing signs of slowing, with only 8 million new users over the last six months.
But whether or not Snapchat survives in a competitive market in the coming years, its contributions — along with those of rivals like Instagram and Apple — to the medium of photography and visual communication are unprecedented. Snap put it this way in its IPO documents: “In the way that the flashing cursor became the starting point for most products on desktop computers, we believe that the camera screen will be the starting point for most products on smartphones.”
It’s that approach that has changed the way we communicate with imagery. It started with phone manufacturers like Apple, which, in response to traditional camera makers, chose to buck the trend by drastically simplifying the photographic experience. “We want to make it so it’s a single tap and you get the picture you want, even though, in the background, we’re doing literally one hundred billion operations to make that photo look as good as it possibly can look,” says Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of product marketing.
The simplicity of the iPhone camera app was a game changer at a time when being a serious photographer typically meant mastering wonky settings like ISO, aperture and shutter speed, not to mention the dozens of other features available on traditional cameras.
By simplifying the camera experience and embedding it in a device that we all carry with us, companies like Apple and Samsung have helped establish the image as a primary form of communication today. “I grew up with technology,” says Robby Stein, Instagram’s product lead for its Snapchat-like Stories feature. “The first thing that we had was the desktop computer and so we were on Instant Messenger, we were sending emails. The way you were communicating was very much based on a keyboard, based on text.” But today’s generation is growing up with a phone-sized computer in their pockets, he says. “Their first device is a camera and they have it in their pocket all the time to capture and share their lives.”
As a result, that camera-first approach is changing the function of the photograph itself. It’s not just the historical record of a past event, says Stein, but it can also be the starting point of communication. “It might not just be the photo itself that’s interesting, but it’s also the context around it,” he tells TIME. “Whom you’re with. What the weather is. How you’re feeling.”
Olivier Laurent, Time.com