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After negative press, Snapchat turns off controversial ‘Solar System’ feature by default

Less than a week after the Wall Street Journal reported how a Snapchat feature called “Solar System” was exacerbating teen anxiety, the company responded by tweaking how the feature works. Today’s paid subscriber ranking system shows you how close you are to your Snapchat friends by showing where you are in their solar system. For example, a friend with a “Mercury” placement will be someone you communicate with a lot, while a friend with a “Uranus” placement won’t be as close.

Of course, online chat doesn’t necessarily correlate to real-world relationships, and this feature can lead to hurt feelings when someone realizes they’re not as close to their friends as they thought.

Snap said it received feedback that knowing you’re close to someone can feel good, but knowing you’re not as close as you’d like can also feel bad.

“We’ve heard and understand that solar systems can make this feeling worse, and we want to avoid that,” the company announced in a post in its newsroom on Friday.

However, instead of removing the feature like it did with its dangerous and controversial speed filter (which it was sued for “negligent design”), Snap simply turned off the Solar System feature by default. Snapchat+ subscribers still have the option to turn that option on.

“We hope this strikes the right balance between providing functionality that many users want while avoiding upsetting people who don’t want to use it,” the company explained.

Turning it off by default might introduce some friction, but if teens already need the feature, they’ll just be looking around for a setting to turn it back on.

Snap believes that Solar System is not that popular, noting that less than 0.25% of the community uses this option. But since it’s only available to paying subscribers, it’s no surprise that the percentage is small. A more relevant statistic is how many Snapchat+ users have used Solar System or viewed the feature.

Although users can’t see who is closer or further away from their friends, finding out they aren’t number one can lead to some difficult conversations and even breakups, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Snap defended the feature, saying people want to know more about their friendships and features like Solar System provide “additional awareness and context.” But in reality, it’s a way to get young people (a group where social hierarchy is crucial) addicted to using Snapchat.

The solar system feature is just one of Snapchat’s friend ranking systems. The Wall Street Journal notes that it also offers a private feature called “Best Friends,” which puts the people you communicate with the most at the top of your contact list, complete with a heart or smiley face emoji.

Another controversial feature, called “Streaks,” is a tool for Snapchat users to encourage reuse of its app by providing a visual representation of how many consecutive days a user has stayed connected on the app. Snap introduced a way to pause surfing last year amid a backlash from parents and families, lawmakers and regulators over the feature’s addictive and psychological harm. It also adds a way for users to recover lost streaks.

While Snap promised in its blog post that it’s “committed to mitigating as much as possible the potential downsides of online communication,” the features and tools it intentionally built left it open to lawsuits and congressional investigations at the very least, if not worse.

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