ghost story

molly elizalde

There is an image that comes to mind when I think of the New York City I knew before I moved here. A woman is mid-leap, jumping from sidewalk to crosswalk. She has a fresh bouquet brimming from her tote. Her trench coat billows behind her. She wears stilettos, but will surely land on her feet.

It’s not a very original image, but neither are most of our early ideas about cities like New York. It came straight from the pages of the September issue of Vogue circa 2005. That was the year I entered high school and about the time I began studying every page—down to the credit lines—of my mother’s magazines. The idea back then was to work in fashion, or at a fashion magazine, or somewhere that would allow me to embody the leaping woman—to be as chic as she was, and to have as exciting and as busying a career.

I spent the next decade stopping in local newsstands whenever I had time to kill. I memorized every masthead, obsessed over the $15 magazines shipped from overseas, took my time paging through my favorites and deciding which I’d buy that day. For me, there was no dreamier way to imagine my future than through the glossy pages of a magazine.

I still revel in the aspirational side of print, but I wonder, too, what’s inspiring in media to today’s teens—does the flood of internet roundups excite them at all? I decide to ask a teen. I Snap message my 14-year-old cousin Ryan, who taught me how to use Snapchat back in November. (A month later, I would make the move from my magazine job to start working for one of Snapchat’s Discover channels, and was glad she had shown me the ropes.)

“Do you read any print magazines?” I ask.

“Not really,” she writes back.

“What about the September issue of Vogue? Does that hold any importance?” I ask.

“Yes, it does,” she says.

With the intention of remaining her cool older cousin, rather than prodding family member, I ask if she and a friend would be up to FaceTime with me. She agrees (“Would love to!!!” is actually what she writes).

The next day, I call Ryan and her friend Ava. They’re at the beach in Malibu wearing tanning oil and no sunscreen. “We’re just trying to get really tan,” Ryan says after I tell her that’s not a great idea. I don’t harp on about it.

It takes about twenty minutes to get anything interesting out of them. They answer my questions with long yeahs and not reallys and I start to think that they’re not even listening to me. Or maybe they just don’t take stock of their media habits, like… ever.

They tell me a lot I already know: They like reading articles that offer beauty and style tips or that tell someone’s personal experiences. They are pretty much only reading Discover. The only sites they visit online with any frequency are YouTube and Netflix.

This is discouraging. I want them to proclaim a great love of media and Vogue as bible, not just a pretty thing to flip through if it’s sitting in front of them. Maybe I’ve come to the wrong teens, or maybe they’re too young to have developed a clear interest or disinterest. I decide to take a different route—what about moving to New York?

On a visit to the city the summer before, Ryan had declared to me that she and all her friends were going to move there for college and work in fashion. Now, she and her friend Ava say that a lot of their friends still want that, but “they’re mainstream.”

“We all want to end up back in Malibu after college,” Ryan says.

It seems entirely backwards to me that teens aren’t excited by the idea of moving to a big city.

Has media opened up their worlds so much that their sheltered California suburb seems just as compelling as anywhere else? 

The same day that Ryan teaches me to use Snapchat, she also tells me that, in the future, print magazines won’t exist. Maybe this is true, and maybe it’s not. What she is telling me is that she’s not interested in reading stories, at least not right now. What she wants—and anyone else who is reading Discover—is to know what’s now, not what’s next. You find out what’s in style and where you can buy it. You can read your weekly horoscope, get a dose of news or another’s personal history. For teens, a lot of the appeal comes from pieces like “You’ve Been Shaving Wrong All Along” and “6 Things You Didn’t Know About Taking Care of Your Underwear”—they can learn how to be a person in a straightforward way without asking the embarrassing questions IRL. It’s not that these how-to stories don’t exist on the internet, but populating Snapchat with this content builds it into an app they’re already spending the majority of their time using. For many, Snapchat is the primary app for communication – more primary even than text messages.

Shareable content—for example, an article on Cosmo’s Discover that says, “It’s Hump Day—wanna chill?” with a graphic of a camel—makes Snapchat even more sociable. It’s not just for right now, but it’s for all the time. It keeps you in the app, always swiping up, Snapping, sharing, chatting.

“It’s addicting,” Ryan says. “I liked it better when it was simpler.”

“I joined Snapchat to talk to my friends,” Ava adds. “Stories and Discover—they just get in the way.”

But even beyond the content, streaks—the number of consecutive days you’ve sent Snaps back-and-forth with a friend, signified by a fire emoji and a number that appears next to the friend’s name on the Chat page—have kept teens in the game. Ryan admits that her longest streak with a friend is 180 days. She also tells me that some kids will even give their password to a friend to maintain their streaks if they are going on vacation and won’t have service. Some of them have streaks in the 300s.

“That’s almost a year,” I say, after asking them what the point of a streak is.

They don’t know what the point is, but I have an idea: A streak becomes an unspoken bond between individuals. You keep it up because if you break your streak, you break something in your friendship. It’s the quiet way of caring without seeming like you care, a more rapid-fire version of how twenty-somethings might wait to answer a text for several minutes or not accept a Facebook friend request for a few days. We’ll reciprocate, but let’s not acknowledge it in person.

Sending a Discover story to a friend through Chat is not like posting something on Twitter or Facebook. It’s mostly tipping off your friends about shopping (“Look, here’s a good sale hack,” or, “Here’s that dress of you’ve been looking for”) rather than sharing a smart article with your followers. The social aspect of Snapchat isn’t a game for twenty-somethings; it’s a more seamless way to say hi to a friend or send them an “I’m thinking of you.” It’s kind of like how my mother responds to messages on Facebook with the salutation and sign-off language of a handwritten letter—there’s a generational difference.

What’s clear is that the amped up pace of 2016 is far removed from my teenage magazine fantasy. As much as I enjoy sending along a shopping Snap, that kind of content still can’t touch the slow narrative appeal of a magazine editorial—the kind of media that doesn’t disappear.

I’m writing this from my old bedroom at my mother’s house in San Francisco where all my issues of Dazed & Confused and AnOther and my collection of international editions of Vogue are still stacked on my bookshelf. It’s approaching September. I’ve already made my way through the 800 pages of next month’s Vogue, and Elle, and the fall fashion issue of New York. I love the repetitive refrains (“Look effortlessly cool,” “These designs are breaking all the rules”) that herald new beginnings for fall.

A week before, when I ask Ryan and Ava if they’re excited for school to start back up, their resounding “No,” takes me aback. Sure, if you live a few steps from the beach, sitting in class all day probably seems like a drag. But the back-to-school season has always been one of my favorite times of the year. It’s still summer, and even though there’s a slight pang knowing that your days of sleeping in and sprawling about for hours of reading and hanging out are numbered, the unknown of the coming season has its own appeal.

I’m still imagining that we’ll all be dressed in tube socks, hot pants, and oversized button downs for fall because why not? I’m dreaming about wearing an oversize coat with platform boots and embroidered embellishments. I have endless ideas from the season’s fashion magazines. From the outside, this may seem like a superficial means to an end, but the clothes structure my time. They form a world where there are bigger and better and fresher things ahead, a world where the leaping woman is more than just an idea, where our aspirations are just ahead. If you slow down enough, that world might not even be so far from what’s right now.