I was having a beer with my friend Ben the other day. He kept childishly giggling and gazing at his phone. After a while he looked up and asked "do you have SnapChat?" I hadn't heard of it, this SnapChat, but was quickly informed that it's a kind of social media thing. You can exchange photos with friends and send them as direct messages. The gimmick is that you can only actually view the photo for a few seconds, and then it's gone forever. It's a bit like the photography equivalent of a one-liner.
Ben installed SnapChat onto my mobile and added himself and a few of our mutual friends. I have since discovered that whilst the initial idea for the app is to share photos, jokes and experiences, so far I've only received pictures of penises.
I was worried that I had somehow been added onto a weird SnapChat porn outlet, or that we'd mistyped a name and accidentally added some strange modern artist. I took my phone back to Ben and explained the problem.
"It must have a virus. It's worse than the time we wandered too far along Brighton Beach!" I said, panicking. But Ben just laughed gently, whilst flicking through my received list.
"Steve, you doughnut, there's nothing wrong with your SnapChat account. It's me in the photos!" he said, rolling his eyes. Apparently, according to Ben, this is what everyone thinks SnapChat is for. "I mean, you've only got 8 seconds to view a photo and then it's gone forever, what else are you going to send each other? Photos of flowers?"
Ben told me that although his photos were hilarious, they were relatively tame. According to him, most people are far more full-on. Our friend Phil, for example, supposedly works entirely in the "on-the-toilet-selfie" niche.
"This is awful" I said, "if I wanted to see dicks all day I'd go back onto Chat Roulette".
It turns out, however, that Ben was telling the truth. SnapChat is like Instagram for your genitals. I began asking people if they used SnapChat and, if they did, what kind of pictures they received. Almost everyone I asked was extremely matter-of-fact with their answer. "Willys" they'd say (apart from one woman who said "you know where they don't have SnapChat? Africa. Sign here and we can help build up social media use in the Congo"). I spoke to another man who was buying Union Jack underwear in a shop just off Leicester Square. He said he used it so much that he actually recognised his friends better through looking at their cocks, opposed to their faces.
I travelled to Birmingham to see if SnapChat was just a London phenomenon, but it's gone national. I saw a group of shoppers staring into their phones outside The Bullring. I could tell they were heavy SC users. Ant, one shopper, said "I used to be on Twitter, and I'd use all 140 characters up, but I felt I couldn't really get my point across without sharing a picture of a dick, you know?" All the others nodded their heads in agreement.
"Yeah!" announced someone else in the group, "and whenever you'd attach a photo of your cock on Facebook you'd end up getting reported by someone! It was so gay!"
I spoke to a guy called Carl who was on his way into a Wetherspoons on Broad Street. He said "I used Plentyoffish.com to show my private parts to strangers, but thanks to SnapChat I can now share them with my friends and colleagues as well. And it's not just penis photos, no way! There's piss and balls too!"
Joe, who's a secondary school teacher, informed me that the problem is even more serious in 15 to 16 year olds. "We managed to block youporn, redtube, pornhub, and about fifty other sites from the school's internet," he told me, "but they've all got SnapChat on their phones. They'll always finding new ways to look at dicks, the randy little shits".
I found the whole thing disgusting, invasive and tacky. Why, I thought, does social media need to make this leap into the debauched? It's unnecessary. How can people think this innocent app needs to be used in such a way? I went back to Ben to confront him.
"This is unnatural," I shouted, "why do you like it so much? Surely the last thing you want to see is an unflattering picture of your mate's penis? Even if you like penises, do you really need to have people constantly sending you phallic photographs?"
He was only half listening though; his eyes were glued to his phone. He shrugged his shoulders and said "I figure that I spend all day looking at dicks I used to go to school with on Facebook anyway, so what's the difference?"
I paused, then checked my inbox. I laughed for 8 seconds.
Follow Stephen Ferdinando on Twitter: www.twitter.com/steveferdinando