Stories is not a technology, nor is it a feature. It is a media format, or even a genre, in the way that a magazine or a murder mystery or a 30-minute television program is. This is also why it’s a little silly to worry about who “copied” Stories from whom, since the whole point of formats and genres is to develop independent of single tools of creation and dissemination. The different styles of Story illustrate the form’s broad uses. On Snapchat, Stories are more informal, making use of the face-filters and geotags common to that platform. On Instagram, filters and Boomerangs and neon text and the like are more frequently used, as that platform’s heavily composed manner warrants.
And that’s also why “Story” is such a terrible name for this format. Contemporary culture’s obsession with storytelling runs so deep, everything has become framed as storytelling, even when it’s clearly not. Most Stories are not storytelling. They are sequenced, which is one of the definitions of narration: an account of events. But sequence is not sufficient to create narrative, and many Stories feel like random collections of unrelated materials. Most of the ones I see on Facebook and Instagram are one- or two-image sequences, hardly enough to play out a day-in-the-life, let alone a moment, anymore.
They are chains of vignettes, as seen through the frame of the smartphone’s rectangle. Moving rectangles, maybe we should call them instead, after moving images, another name for the category that contains film, television, video, and the like.

This category error makes it easy to misunderstand, overlook, or dismiss Stories. Writing at BuzzFeed recently, Katie Notopoulos lamented the rise of Stories, arguing that it’s suffocating the feed. “Our feeds have grown stale,” Notopoulos writes, “littered with ads and celebrities and influencers: people who are still posting actively, professionally, obligatorily.”
What Notopoulos might be feeling is the dissonance of feed-life giving way to Story-life online. The “Story” part—the 24-hour narrative sequence comprised of individual images and moving images—is far less important than the mobile-native format. Every time I look at a Story I feel dissociated, as if I’m looking at something that almost makes sense but yet eludes it. Then again, I don’t really use these services, so I asked my son, an experienced Snapchat and Instagram user, to tell me what I was doing wrong.
“I think disassociation is sort of the point,” he said. “It’s the same reason people go to Coachella just to take photos of themselves there all day.” The liveness of smartphone-authorship, combined with the ephemerality of the Story format, makes it a catalog of the experience of holding and looking through a rectangle almost all the time.
This makes me think of a famous definition of photography by the prolific 20th-century street photographer Garry Winogrand: “A still photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera ‘saw’ a piece of time and space.” Likewise, a Story is the illusion of what your smartphone saw. Or better, of what the hybrid you-and-your-smartphone saw—as if there was a you without a smartphone, anymore. Once again, there are different versions of that phenomenon. The Instagram version, as my son concluded, is “about pretending you’re living a lifestyle that is so exclusive you can only get a glimpse into it for a few hours before it disappears.” On Snapchat, it’s mostly a series of personal moments for your friends. Facebook wants to develop more of these styles of moving rectangle. Cox even mentioned a few during the keynote: letting groups of soccer parents create a collaborative story, or helping friends construct a record of events, like at a concert. These examples are social, which is no surprise for Facebook. But you can also imagine many others as the shift from images to rectangled images proceeds.
“Photography is not about the thing photographed,” Winogrand once said. “It is about how that thing looks photographed.” And likewise, a Story is not about the things sequenced in the story. It is about how those things look through the sensors and software of a smartphone. It’s a dubious sensation, to stare down the barrel of that future. On the one hand, the smartphone is clearly popular and important enough to overthrow its ancestors, replacing them while incorporating the DNA of their media. But on the other hand, the smartphone can already feel like an oppressive, hazardous window onto the world.
No matter how you feel about the matter, it’s easy to guess what Facebook thinks: If that future is likely, or even just possible, better to design for it than to miss the boat. As my colleague Alexis Madrigal recently put it, “Facebook wants to be the identity layer of everything as the company accelerates the merging of our digital and physical selves.” And the growth in Stories, Cox concluded during the keynote, “is really insane.”