Look carefully, you will see this only once

by Toby Manhire / 25 April, 2013
The hugely popular app Snapchat deletes shared pictures just seconds after they appear.
The Snapchat frontpage.

While nation-states ponder “right to be forgotten” legislation, which would oblige internet companies such as Facebook to delete users' information on request, the kids are way ahead: they’re deleting it as they go.

Or they’re doing so, at least, in the case of pictures. The hugely popular app Snapchat does something that at first glance seems strange: it deletes pictures or videos 10 seconds after you open them – and they’re currently being sent, and deleted, at a rate of 150 million a day.

The Wall Street Journal explains how the app, which charts particularly highly among 13- to 18-year-olds, works:

When you receive a Snapchat photo, you tap on the message and hold your finger on the screen to view the photo. It then disappears after a set period of time, up to 10 seconds. The self-destruction feature encourages people to share fleeting moments without having to worry about storing files.

You can still take a screenshot, but that’s not really in the spirit of the thing – and the sender will get an alert telling them you’ve captured what was meant to be fleeting.

Snapchat has recently attracted wider attention.

At the New Yorker’s “Elements” blog, Matt Buchanan reckons that the rise of Snapchat among “the under-25 set” is significant because they have “spent their formative years with Facebook looming in the background” – perhaps, he suggests, they are tiring of Facebook’s almost evangelistic sharing ethos, and the permanence of all that sharing.

When I spoke to the Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel a little while ago, he would not quite commit to the idea that Snapchat is potentially part of a bigger movement against permanence. “It’s hard for me to say,” he said, even as he noted that “our entire lives have been liked, retweeted, posted, forwarded” with a touch of lament. But he offered that Snapchat allows you to “free yourself from an amorphous collection of who you’ve been forever.”

Snapchat “highlights the power of deletion in resisting the gentle totalitarianism of endless sharing”, writes Buchanan. “Deletion pokes holes in these records.”

It is a destabilising force that calls into question their authority, particularly as complete documentation of a person’s online identity, which Facebook and Twitter increasingly purport to be. It is the only way to be selective, to make choices, when everything is shared. I delete tweets frequently from Twitter, for instance. (I have jokingly called it “snaptweeting.”) There is a general expectation that a tweet will stick around, particularly if it is somehow embedded in the greater Twitter infrastructure, for example when somebody favourites or retweets it. Its disappearance shortly thereafter breaks the system in a tiny way, generating a hairline crack in that model of who I am.

At the New Inquiry, sociologist Nathan Jurgenson cranks up the theory dial further still.

Snapchat, he reckons, represents a “breaking point” between “experience for its own sake and experience we pursue just to put on Facebook”.

He writes:

By refuting the assumption of the permanence of the image, Snapchat is a radical departure ... The temporary photograph’s abbreviated lifespan changes how it is made and seen, and what it comes to mean.

He adds:

The photograph, for all its promised immortality, always hinted at death. This was central to Roland Barthes’s analysis in Camera Lucida, Roland Barthesthat the enduring image “produces Death while trying to preserve life.” Documenting the present as a future past, as conventional photographs do, asserts the facts of change, impermanence, and mortality. The temporary photograph does the opposite: It interrupts the traditional photographic fixation of the present as impending history by positing a present moment that’s not concerned with the past or the future. As such, the temporary photograph is necessarily less sentimental and nostalgic. By being quick, the temporary photograph is a tiny protest against time.

And it changes the way you look at the picture, he says.

The ephemerality sharpens viewers’ focus: Once received, a Snapchat count-down is a kind of time-bomb that demands an urgency of vision, a challenge to exhaust the meaning from the image before the clock runs out. Unlike a paper photo that fades slowly over the years, the temporary photo disappears suddenly. Given only a peek, you look hard.

What neither Buchanan nor Jurgenson gives a lot of thought to – not that it necessarily contradicts their analysis - is the possibility that the chief function, and appeal, of Snapchat is much more banal, and pragmatic. First, it doesn’t take up precious space on your phone. Second, it destroys the evidence.
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