Snapped into the void: Reflections on Snapchat

“Snapchat is complicated”, has become a mantra among those who tried and then abandoned the app; and, in reaction, instructions on how to use Snapchat have sprung up across the web[1]. Now, this post (as those who regularly read my blog will have guessed already) is neither a rant about how I got confused by attempting to use Snapchat, nor a guide for those who’re aspiring to get into (and find their way through) the maze of snapping. It is, rather, a reflection on what is so peculiar about Snapchat that even seasoned social media surfers often feel a strange hesitation to engage with the app[2].

Here’s my hypothesis: Snapchat, in a playful way, contradicts some of the most common illusions our online universe (and those who create it on a daily basis) likes to lure us into, and thereby pulls the magic carpet out from under our buttocks – leaving us suspended in thin air, up in the skies, lost in space. Indulging in such experiences is not everybody’s cup of coffee, glass of gin, or piece of cheesecake. This is not saying that those who engage with the app automatically also enjoy this particular aspect of it (they might just have chosen it as their preferred means of communication, just like others use smokes signals, drums, or carrier pigeons). However, I dare to conjecture that at least some of those who hesitate to turn themselves into ghosts surrounded by yellow-grounded dotty codes are consciously or unconsciously held back by their unease to engage with this feeling of being snapped into some unknown void.

IMG_5698

@bucketrides on Snapchat

Let me elaborate[3]:

  1. On Snapchat, nothing is permanent. Snapchat is programmed to delete every snap after a viewing time set by the sender (of maximum 10 seconds), and stories (strings of snaps pasted together by the sender) self-delete after 24 hours. The company claims that data are permanently deleted from their servers after this time, too. This is a nightmare for every adept of big data, digital customer insight, or online personality (or institutional) branding. Noone can create a consistent (or inconsistent) web persona that can be tracked over time; noone can investigate other users’ snap history to form a mental voodoo doll of who they’re interacting with; noone can exploit users’ addictions to filter coffee, skate boards, or hand-drawn minions[4]. What if (online) life was like that all the time? What if views, experiences, and opinions were transitory, translucent, and untrustworthy, just like a snap that I thought I had seen but then – where did it go? Was it just a dream? Just a magical show?
  2. On Snapchat, (dis-) likes are private. On Snapchat, there’s no pre-programmed way to like (or dislike) other people’s snaps. And all information I can extract about my own snaps is how many people (and who) viewed them – no way to tell whether they looked at my creative endeavours with attraction or with repulsion. And, of course, no way to comment on other people’s snaps other than by sending them a direct snap back – so no threads of comments spiralling from misunderstanding to slight criticism, to outrage, to anger, to open hate. Also, no way to tell how many people view others people’s snaps, so no competition on friends, followers, mentions, or tags[5]. What if (online) life was like that all the time? What if what I think about others (and what others think about me) remained a matter of my (or their) own mind, or – at most – a matter between them and us, with no audience, sneaky schadenfreude, or simulated sympathy? All preferences just echoes inside our heads, like a snap viewed by nobody? All relationships nothing but dances of imagination?
  3. On Snapchat, reality is never absolute. Snapchat makes it easy and enjoyable – and therefore practically indispensable – to alter any photo or video I’m sending or adding to my story. No view without a comment, an emoji that dances across, some scribbled lines in rainbow colours. No selfie without some self-deprecatig note, or even adorned with one of Snapchat’s legendary filters – pig-nosed, rabbit-eared, wrinkled faces, exploding skulls, clouds of hearts and roses, and unicorns vomiting rainbows. Reality, as our cameras capture it, is therefore never seen as finite, ultimate, or unalterable. What if (online) life was like that all the time? What if what we see was never quite what is there? What if, all around us, throughout our ordinary days, there were hidden messages, funky fairies, kaleidoscopic colours, available at the tips of our fingers, with a swipe, a click, and a tap? What we experience no different from a hallucination? A mirage in the desert?
  4. On Snapchat, the starting point is always here & now. Snapchat always opens on the camera window, offering me the current view through the lens of my smartphone. In order to see anything else, I need to do something – swipe left to chat, swipe right to see people’s stories, tap the top right to change to the front camera, tap the top to fiddle with settings and with my own profile. I’m not seduced into picking up on past conversations (most of which will have disappeared anyways), I’m not tempted to scroll though other people’s chatterings, complaints, or incomprehensible heart-to-hearts[6]. What if (online) life was like that all the time? What if everybody’s predominant perspective was always the perspective of their current moment, devoid of past baggage, unhampered by fantasies of uncertain futures, uncluttered by others’ (or their own) confusing utterances? A reflection of what is here, right now? An apparition out of what is (which, of course, a the same time, is not)?

A world that disintegrates all the time, gives no orientation on what others expect, presents us with malleable truths, and forces us back into the present moment whenever we were distracted? How does that look, sound, smell, taste, and feel? And how do we act in such a world? What do we do? What do we refrain from?

Snap. See for yourself.

Stay there.[7]


[1] Just do a web search yourself to find out about the complaints and confusion as well as about a plethora of “How to…” articles. The most helpful and entertaining (German language) guide on snapchat Ive come across so far is Philipp Steuer’s “Snap me if you can” [retrieved Mar 26, 2016]. Oh, and in case you’re not even familiar with Snapchat, here’s there website [retrieved Mar 26, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[2] A bit of history: Snapchat started off as a chatting app that was quickly quite popular with young people, not the least (as the legend says), because this was a space on the web that was not yet populated by (and not easily accessible to) parents and other interventionist authorities; legend also has it that people used (and maybe still use) Snapchat as an exchange platform for exchanging erotic pictures. For more details on the app’s history, see the corresponding article on Wikipedia [retrieved Mar 26, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[3] For those not familiar with Snapchat: The app basically combines two features, a messaging app (in which you can send text messages, photos, and videos with friends) and a browser for its stories (which are concatenations of a user’s photos and videos taken over the course of a day). A special feature of Snapchat, compared with many other similar apps, is that users can (and lavishly do) garnish their photos and videos with filters, emojis, and self-made drawings, creating “on the go” pieces of visual creativity.BACK TO TEXT

[4] Unless – which is possible – they screenshot their communication partners’ snaps. Which, in turn, the communication partner will be informed about through a tiny arrow-shaped icon on their snap, so secret stalking is hard, if not impossible.BACK TO TEXT

[5] With the interesting consequence that (some) snapchatters like to communicate their (lack of) popularity on Snapchat on other social media channels.BACK TO TEXT

[6] Once inside the app, it actually takes a right swipe, a scroll, and a click until I’m “inside” anybody else’s story. And whether I go there and which stories I visit, is totally up to me – nothing pushed into a “timeline”, algorithmed or not, everybody just showing up in chronological order of their last-added snap, with a random view from their current story.BACK TO TEXT

[7] I sincerely wish, hope, and pray that Snapchat stays with their features. What they offer, is a unique approach to our digitalised lives and their interconnectedness. I’d hate to see it succumb to the pressure of eternity lovers, gurus of sharing, masters of closure, or time-travel whiz kids.BACK TO TEXT

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