Snapchat: Snap Back to Reality

Introduction: Snapchat’s Growth Spurt

When I had first heard of Snapchat, it was still relatively new and rumors were still rife about it being used exclusively by teenagers as a medium for exchanging illicit photographs. Like every other reasoning adult, I found the concept itself kind of ridiculous: a so-called social media platform (which seemed more like a messaging app) where all of the content disappears after 10 seconds. I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” and I discounted the service. Yet, in time some of my good friends made their way on to the platform and naturally I had to try it out as well. Soon enough I was snapping away, sharing selfies with goofy filters and absurd “snapart,” among other, more mundane images and videos.

Snapart and a Faceswap Selfie

I began to think that maybe there was something else to this seemingly pointless app — and it appears many others have as well. Over the last few years, Snapchat has been hailed as one of the fastest growing social media apps, outpacing the similar, photo-based Instagram. Just last week it was reported that Snapchat’s number of daily active users rose above that of Twitter, and that within the next year its user base could potentially increase by another 27% making it larger than both Twitter and Pinterest.

While the numbers are fascinating, it still leaves us with the question of “why?” What is it about Snapchat that makes it so appealing, and how has it not only survived, but thrived in the clamor of myriad apps all demanding our attention and engagement? To be certain, there is a degree of novelty involved, both in the sense that it’s the “hip, new thing that everyone is talking about,” and also because it offers up a unique take on digital social interaction in its self-destructing form. But if novelty were the only draw, surely the app’s growth would have slowed down at some point in its 4-year lifespan.

Framework: Some Assemblage Required

In order to dig deeper into the phenomenon of Snapchat, to better understand its growth and also to personally figure out why it has become as ubiquitous as any other social media I use, I will examine the app in terms of the primary practices, habits and relationships that it has become associated with, namely: privacy, ephemerality and authenticity. Before I discuss these more specifically, first I’d like to set up some of the theoretical framework that helped me identify these practices and habits, most importantly the idea of a “technological assemblage,” which comes from the work of Jennifer Slack and John Wise (2005).

The technological assemblage is a way of understanding media and technologies in terms of their contingent connections, or “articulations,” with other materials, technologies and the related “practices, representations, experiences and affects” that come about in the way we use and interact with those technologies. Slack and Wise make the case that it’s too reductive to think of technology in terms of causes and effects — for instance with Snapchat, to say: it’s new, therefore it’s popular. Instead we have to consider how Snapchat is connected to other social media platforms — how it is connected to different behaviors, feelings and experiences that we come to associate with online communication.

Thinking of Snapchat in terms of the technological assemblage, what we will find is that Snapchat has staked out a unique territory in the social media assemblage in the way it “articulates” with the dominant social media platforms by orienting itself in opposition to the norms of privacy, ephemerality and authenticity that those platforms have established.

Privacy: For Sharing the Private Parts… Of Your Life

When we think about privacy we tend to think about it in simple terms of not being observed publicly. Our private lives are the lives we carry out in our homes or apartments or bedrooms, away from the eyes of the general public, our families or our roommates. However, when we enter the online realm of social media, where an implicit aspect of participation is being willingly observed, this definition assumes we have no basis for privacy. danah boyd (2014), in her study of teen social media use, noted this discrepancy between the way we conceive of privacy in real life and online, pointing out that adults and the media assume that young people’s participation in social media indeed signals that they aren’t as concerned about privacy — but she finds that this is far from the truth. Young people are just as concerned about their privacy as older people, especially online.

boyd offers up an alternative way to define privacy that is more tenable in the online world by taking the focus away from observation, and instead framing privacy in terms of the ability to control what information others have access to. That is, instead of thinking of privacy as not being observed, we can think of it as being observed selectively according to our own standards. Yet, even with this altered definition, the way that dominant social media platforms handle our information does not lend much in the way of control, which hampers our ability to maintain privacy in our digital lives. In real life, we operate in way that assumes our lives are — for the most part — private, until we take some kind of action to make it public.

Contrary to this, on most social media platforms all of our information and interactions are “public by default, private through effort” (boyd 2014). If we take Facebook and Twitter as an example (which we will regularly do throughout this article, since they are the most mainstream social media platforms), privacy settings for the main profile are, by default, set to be highly visible and open to the public. Content that is posted and shared is also, by default, set to be public and is widely broadcasted to a large audience. Once that information hits the newsfeed (in the case of Facebook) there is almost no control over who has access to it, since algorithms determine who it is visible to. Although it is possible to change these settings, it does indeed take effort in order to take control of this information and maintain privacy on these platforms, which reveals the bias that dominant social media platforms have against users’ privacy.

The way that Snapchat is designed offers absolute control over the information. To begin with, there is no profile or newsfeed on Snapchat, which completely eradicates the need to have privacy settings in order to limit access to content. Instead, the user actively selects what kind of audience they want to send content to: after taking a photo or video, users are directed to their friends list where they can choose who is allowed to view it, with broadcasting merely being an option (via “My Story,” a loop of content that is visible for a full 24 hours instead of the normal 10 seconds), rather than the default. Even when this broadcast option is chosen, there is no opaque algorithm determining who gets to view it, it shows up on the Stories page of all the user’s friends, and the app notifies the user which friends have viewed each individual snap in their Story.

Ephemerality: The Ghost in the Handheld Machine

Among the three practices discussed in this article, the one most associated with the novelty of Snapchat is the ephemerality of its content. Just for the sake of clarity, ephemerality is a term typically used to describe natural or biological phenomena, and refers to the quality of an object that only exists for a brief or limited amount of time. In the context of Snapchat, all of the content that a user produces, whether it is a video, picture or text message is deleted from their servers almost immediately upon being viewed by the recipient (with the exception of Stories, which are deleted after 24 hours, and Local Stories which are publicly viewable beyond a user’s friends list and may be archived).

To understand the importance of Snapchat’s ephemerality, it is again necessary to place it in relation to an assemblage of other social media platforms and practices — and in fact, Snapchat was conceived in response to anxieties over the permanence of content on Facebook and the potential social damage it could cause. The profile pages on mainstream social media sites essentially act as an archive or repository that documents and stores the interactions, personality and preferences of its users. Even on the news feeds of Facebook and Twitter, which seem temporary as new statuses continually push older ones into oblivion, old content can still return in the form of “Memories” that Facebook puts at the top of the news feed. All of that content is always still there lurking in a server, waiting to show up in four years to embarrass. Even deleting content might not be enough to get rid of it, as Facebook may store some deleted content to feed their algorithms and provide personalized content.

The ephemerality of Snapchat is also better understood in the way that this practice is articulated with the practices of privacy and authenticity (the latter of which will be discussed in more detail in the following section). As already mentioned, Snapchat was built with privacy in mind in order to ease anxieties about the permanence of content on Facebook. If we go back to our earlier definition of privacy, ephemerality grants a greater degree of control to the sender, since there is less concern that the content from Snapchat will be able to circulate. It’s true that recipients are able to take screenshots, but Snapchat actively discourages this by alerting the sender, which is beneficial to the sender in the case of embarrassing or risqué content, and seems to function as a passive “like” option for more benign content.

Authenticity: Snapping Selfies as the Self

Unlike the general public, for which ephemerality is the defining feature of Snapchat, the creators and designers behind the app seem to place a lot more emphasis on practices surrounding the notion of authenticity. The rhetoric of Snapchat’s marketing and promotional materials heavily emphasizes that the nature of the app allows users to be more open, honest and candid. They urge people to share “in the moment,” in a way that allows their authentic self to come out. When we compare this to the current social media environment, this appears to be true. Mark Zuckerberg, in a display of armchair moral philosophy, has been quoted in an interview as saying:

“You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

This mentality has clearly informed Facebook, which attempts to force users to identify with their real names, and consistently urges them to divulge details about their life in order to create a uniform identity (as someone with a somewhat empty Facebook profile, I could even say “urges” borders on “badgers”). Again, these kinds of practices reveal a bias of this platform toward a certain type of identity, in which the authentic self is whatever public persona has been accumulated on social media.

Moving beyond the direct bias of Facebook, the permanence of mainstream social media troubles the notion of identity and authenticity. To a casual observer, a profile is a person, and not just a person as they are, but also a person as they were — that is the profile, as an archive or repository, represents an accumulation of several different identities that a social media user has embodied over time. The observer might recognize that a certain piece of text or image is old, but because of the fluid nature of identity, it is impossible to parse out and draw a line in the news feed to say when someone has “become” who they are currently.

As I mentioned above, this is where Snapchat’s ephemerality articulates practices of authenticity, and from where the app’s creators draw their emphasis on honesty, openness and being “yourself.” Because Snapchat is a mobile app, it makes the ability to snap and share highly accessible in a variety of situations, and the ephemerality of the content mimics the experience of the user, in that the moment being shared is instantaneous and fleeting — unlike mainstream social media where the content lingers to be viewed and reviewed as desired. Once the content is gone, it removes that “repository” effect where observers can create some imagined identity based on the archive of photos and status updates, and reduces the anxiety that users feel to curate a particular kind of identity. In short, the argument is that users have more freedom to be themselves because they are not tethered to the profile.

While this appears true, especially in relation to mainstream social media, which is highly curated, I might offer a word of caution about the notion of “authenticity” in any kind of mediated communication. To borrow a metaphor from sociologist Erving Goffman (1959), our “identity” at any given moment, is a performance that we are putting on, which is itself contingent on the stage (i.e., social context) that we’re performing on, and the other performers we are sharing the stage with. Snapchat, just like any other medium or social media, is just another stage with a different audience, that urges us to perform a different kind of identity. To continue the metaphor, Snapchat — as a stage — has its own set of props and scenery that direct the performance: features like trophies, stories, filters and snap streaks, as well as certain conventions, encourage us to use the app a certain way and therefore “be” a certain way on Snapchat. While Snapchat, with its offering of privacy and ephemerality, may offer us a more honest way to communicate, it is difficult to say that it is entirely authentic.

Conclusion: Snap Back to Reality

Even as they move forward, Snapchat continues to innovate against mainstream social media. For instance, the app does not collect and store personal information for targeting advertising. Instead they insert ads into their Discover feeds, (curated stories combining text and video, provided by commercial publications) and use the demographics of the publication to determine the ads displayed. Advertising on Snapchat is always separate from communication, unlike Facebook and Twitter which attempt to subtly slip ads into the scroll of the newsfeed. As the platform and company grows, it will be interesting to see whether they can maintain this momentum, and whether or not they might possibly upset the normalized values that have been established by mainstream social media.

Returning to the idea of the assemblage, in each of the preceding sections I have presented evidence about how Snapchat has articulated itself against mainstream social media platforms and with certain practices in order to stake out a unique territory in the overall field of social media. Going deeper than calling it a mere novelty, these articulations could possibly explain the massive success of Snapchat, and predict its future success. The overall effect of Snapchat’s articulations points toward a social media experience that attempts to make digital communication more like real life, instead of trying to simply represent communication in a digital space. As in real life, Snapchat is private by default, public by choice, experiences are fleeting and shared “live,” in a sense, and the notion of “you” is based on experience as you are, not as you were.

Works Cited

boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven : Yale University Press

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.

Slack, J. D., & Wise, J. M. (2005). Culture + technology: A primer. New York: Peter Lang.

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