Snapchat? Should I Subscribe?

A cartoon pane of two boys on Snapchat, the app. Subscriptions to channels are free but now the app offers a subscription. How confusing!
Snapshot? Should I subscribe?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My tween asked to use my credit card so she could get a Snapchat subscription. It’s only $3.99 a month but I don’t understand the need and she did not explain it to me very clearly. When I went on their web site I was even more confused since it seems like a free app. She mostly uses the app with a group of her girlfriends from school. So Snapchat, should I subscribe? Luna, Mill Valley

Dear Luna: I have some ideas for a subscription that you will hopefully find useful but first let me mention two preliminaries. As a parent, you should be aware of the map feature on Snapchat. Some users call it “creepy.” Enabled by default, the map allows any of your daughter’s friends to see her exact GPS location when she last opened the app. This is accurate enough to determine your home address.Not good! However, it can be disabled in the app’s settings. Second you did not mention the age of your tween but note that the legal age to open a Snapchat account is thirteen. 

Now, back to subscriptions. Snapchat is following in the footsteps of Twitter and Telegram with the subscription offer. It would be a good idea in my opinion if social media companies used monthly subscriptions to show us fewer ads, and if they agreed to not sell our data and tighten up their privacy policies. So far that has not happened. These premium subscriptions are geared towards power users and frequent viewers who value more custom features. 

Cosmetic Upgrades?:

A few years ago I wrote a column on a for-fee feature on Snap that let the user select custom stickers and text. The Verge, which has reviewed the current subscription offering finds similar changes.  They called the new subscription a “mostly cosmetic upgrade.” The $3.99 subscription will let users change the app’s icon, see who watched a story multiple times, and pin a friend at the top of the chat history as a BFF. That doesn’t sound like a lot for $3.99 a month, but there are probably other reasons that your tween or teen would favor it. Perhaps they want to be the first in their social group to try it out and/or they are a power user who plans to  demonstrate advanced skills and expertise with the app.

Last I checked, a subscription is a product or service we pay for on a reoccurring basis, say for Internet service or our phone plans. Snap, on the other hand, obfuscates the meaning of a subscription. With their free account you can interact with friends you personally knew, or post a subscription channel. In that case stories go to different viewers, not just friends. For instance, Snap allows a subscription channel for your dog and doggie pictures you select go out to anyone who cares to follow. These subscribers would be unlikely to follow your personal content. Snapchat also offers the opportunity to “subscribe” to a big, outside media channel. News outlets, like the UK Daily Mail, have popular subscriptions on Snapchat.  Note the multiples types of Snap ‘subscriptions’!

A Better Subscription:

So, while Snapchat has had subscriptions for free and now a new one for fee,  I have a suggestion for an entirely better one. For  marginally larger fee you can sign your tween up for an online subscription to your local newspaper, or a national one. I would recommend you consider this because the news feed we get on social media is highly personalized yet incomplete. Social media sites construct feeds with content that matches the users’ point of view to keep them engrossed and sell more ads. It’s called a filter bubble.  Newspapers have less imperative to select content this way and they actually employ journalists to write the stories they post! Newspaper reporting is usually the basis for most of the watered down feeds your daughter will read on Snapchat and other social media.  So, it’s valuable to expose her to the original stories and get her in the habit of reading a daily paper. If you are planning to get the $3.99 subscription to Snap then I think you owe it to your daughter to spend a little more each month and get a subscription with depth and analysis. It doesn’t sounds like this would present a hardship but be aware that your local library or school will have a subscription service to the newspaper on offer- something that Snapchat does not!

Listserv Why Still Use it?

A cartoon of four chipmunk like critters passing around a bunch of envelopes. What is Listserv and Why Use it?
Cute chipmunks pass around an email.
Listserv- Why Still Use It?


Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am watching my parent’s condo this summer while they are gone, and that includes checking their PO box and an email account. The postal mail is tame, but the email seems to be out-of-control. My question is listserv- why still use it? There are tens of messages that come in daily from the condo association listserv. The emails are diverse – restaurants that offer an early bird special, at what time the lifeguards will open the pool, and concerns about an assessment. Occasionally there is a posting for free boxes or furniture which I find useful. I just got out of school and don’t understand why people are flooding email boxes with this junk instead of say using a forum with channels- like Slack or Google Groups. Dylan, Brookline

Dear Dylan: Since you are housesitting, it’s unlikely that you can propose improvements to their communication network. So use this time to steep yourself in telecommunications history and understand how the Internet developed. Listserv is to the Internet as corded wall phones are to wireless telecomm. You can read about the early history of listserv here on Wikipedia. When listservs came of age in the nineteen eighties, email was also in its infancy. Before then, only  scientists and geeks got to try it out. Your parents, and those still using in-house listservs, probably remember those early days of technology.

PROS/CONS:

There are pros and cons to a listserv service, and older people who grew up with it find it useful. They do not have to use the Internet to visit outside sites so it lowers the barriers to participation. And for a generation accustomed to writing letters, the email format lets them continue to write long diatribes- without text limitations. Having reactions and feedback stretched over time also seems natural, since they used to send letters through the post office.

A listserv also provides more security, than say Nextdoor. You have to be vetted by a moderator and he/she surely knows who is moving in and out of the condo building. That gives listserv subscribers more confidence that they are participating in a safe “closed” group. But, it’s hard to be anonymous on listserv- say to complain about the noise upstairs or the mess left in the trash room.  

RULE IT IN:

The most annoying feature of the listserv as you note, is the volume of email that it can generate. I have three suggestions, but you will need to run these by your parents! You can ask the moderator of the listserv if they have a web site you could access, in lieu of sending out the emails. Second, see if there is an option to get a weekly digest, not day- to-day traffic. If all else fails, set up a rule for incoming email that sorts and compiles the listserv emails.

For either Outlook or Gmail , the basic steps within email are: Manage rules> Alerts>New Rule. When you establish a rule description, it will automatically filter incoming listserv messages and compile them in a new folder. You can find more directions online.

Taming listserv makes me imagine that early tech founders, say Jack Dorsey on Twitter or Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook were also party to listserv communiques, just like you. They innovated because of their frustration with this dialogue method. They imagined a better version of messaging where discussion threads were threaded or tagged, where pictures and images could be posted, and topics were easy to search. Perhaps they wanted a shareable calendar. Most of all, they saw a need for two-way dialogue in real time without the long gaps in between. As you follow the daily blasts from the listserv this summer you can steep yourself in the history of the Internet and appreciate how faster and shorter messaging has become.

Do I Need a Parking App?

“I would have missed the graduation if I had spent time downloading the app…”

A screenshot of an app for parking called "easypark." There are four panels in this graphic showing how the app works on the phone and that it takes cashless payment.
Do I need a Parking App?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My family and I were visiting an East Coast city this weekend for a college graduation. We parked our rental vehicle on the street and ended up getting a parking ticket. Apparently we missed the signage that requested we pay for parking by downloading an app, signing up, and entering the license plate number. I didn’t have that app, and had I downloaded it I would have missed the graduation ceremonies. Meanwhile, my Mom, who was with us, thought this was entirely unfair, as she does not have a cell phone in her own car. What to do for the future?Do I need a parking app? Carolyn, Pacifica

Dear Carolyn: Parking apps seem to proliferate like weeds and no one wants to set up an account with each one. Let me begin by listing some popular parking apps. Parkopeia/ParkingPanda/bestparking/smartparking/Parkmobile/easypark/PaybyPhone/Yodel/Parker/ParkWhiz/ParkingPanda/SpotHero/BestParking/ParkNav/Passport Parking/OPnGO/ParkPay/ParkMe/ParkingKitty.

A five minute search on Google revealed these providers. Clearly there are more, some that will work on Android, others on iPhone, and many that require a particular version of a phone’s operating system. I imagine that city planners spend a lot of time being solicited by these app providers and taking precious time to select the the “right” parking app for their community. They view it as a progressive transportation option but more people like you are asking, “Do I Need a Parking App?”

Write it Up:

As a first level of response, you should send an email or letter to the municipality that issued the ticket. Send it to both the court and to the transportation department. Explain that you had no opportunity to download the parking app. You could add that you keep your phone on WiFi, and could not reach their site. And, you might note that your elderly mother would have no way to connect if she was driving on her own.

From the consumer’s point-of-view these apps require a strong WiFi signal and they are collecting a lot more than a quarter ($0.25) or two. To register, each app is going to ask for credit card information, address, and license plate. These are private companies and municipal officials often overlook that the companies, not the town, has access to this data. This is, of course, for the privilege, or should I say the right, to park your vehicle.

Pre-Registration Apps:

There is some parallel here with using Uber or Lyft for ridehailing. These services are also designed on having real-time telecom access. Significantly, riders must set up an account and put their credit card, email, and phone number on file before they take their first trip. There is nothing spontaneous about first trips on Uber or Lyft. In the Bay Area, the bridges also use a pre-registration process.

Many parking apps seem to be designed with a similar sign-in. The problem is that you just want to park your car- not create an account. Historically, drivers expect to be able to toss a few quarters into the meter and leave. It’s not a high-involvement issue, except to the app makers and city planners.

Happy Appy? Sometimes:

When you write to the transportation department, recognize that they may views pros and cons. Perhaps they expect to improve the experience for visitors like you. They can deploy electronic metering to vary the price of parking by time of the day. They might also save money with the electronic app as they reduce staff who walk from meter to meter and bring the coins back for central processing.

There are also some advantages for the driver if they are forbearing. Concord NH, for example, reminds app users that they will never face a parking ticket again because the app reminds them when the time is expiring. And drivers can refresh the payment online and not need to walk back to the vehicle. That all sounds good, but this is the point where a parking app become ‘high involvement.’ Notifications need to be enabled on the smartphone to get these messages. That could be distracting and annoying- all for the sake of a few quarters or dimes.

Reduce Search Time:

Perhaps the greatest advantage of these apps is that the most advanced parking apps guide a driver towards open spaces- particularly in private or municipal lots. The Parknav app, for example, will predict street space availability in real time when you search for an address. This is valuable since a major source of urban traffic congestion is cars that circle to find a parking space. In an unscientific way, this Forbes article claims that about 30% of drivers at a given time are doing this and a third of NYC drivers report they search for 20 minutes on average.

If you plan to go back to this municipality for a future graduation then by all means download their app for parking. But if this was a one time visit, with a one time ticket, take the time to write the town or city. Let them know that for a drop-in or casual visitor, the parking app was an unfriendly deterrent. They should offer you, and your Mom, an option to pay with coins or a credit card, not just with your phone. It’s Pomp, Parking, and Circumstance.