by Joseph Temes
As university students, we see everywhere around us people pushing themselves to their limits in an effort to participate in fantastic technological advancement. They get results, but the new means of operation and social interaction and access that new sorts of technologies bring about affect the human experience in ways that are much too complex to be drawn into any narrative of forward progression. In this short piece, I want to offer some thoughts on Snapchat as a medium of communication, its relation to other social media, and the kind of thinking that it encourages.
Social media like Myspace, Facebook, Instagram and others all maintain readily accessible records. The permanence that social media imposed on its subject matter was seen to weaken the social feeling it seeks to facilitate. Snapchat was thus, ironically, to a degree born out of a romanticism for the fleeting quality of pre-digitized social experience.
Having experienced a moment that is passed is a point of connection upon which individuals base relationships. Without evidence to show for it, an especially meaningful shared knowledge and even understanding is built up from collective memory that can’t be shared so easily, and thus is especially effective at forming communities, whether that be a small circle of friends, a class, a school, or a whole city. Snapchat allowed for this to be established over technological communication, not only between individuals but between one individual and a mass of followers. This is something of a beautiful thing — we can share a moment, collectively witness and forget, in a rhythm not of formal publications but informal dialogue, with people dear to us to a great degree, even if they are far away. But there are potential worries here as well.
The concern is not that Snapchat makes lived experiences less special by way of losing its monopoly over this kind of interaction. Rather, the worry is that this medium encourages the individual to co-opt lived experience into pre-existing and predetermined contexts to a degree way beyond that of its social media predecessors like Myspace, Facebook, or Instagram. With these other forms of media this happens whenever there is the natural urge to share an interesting phenomenon with a friend or group. But while the Facebook or Instagram user can take long breaks between feeling or acting on those desires, catching up on old posts or reflecting on past events rather than ongoing ones, the Snapchat user can not, to the extent that s/he is a Snapchat user. Thus, this person is always at risk of missing out (the stories only last for so long!), and to overcome this must constantly exist, in his or her mind, in the context of intaking and exporting content from this medium, looking down to be shown, and looking up to see what’s in front of them only as a digitized display, thumb over the trigger ready to capture that view of it they are looking to send to their determined audience. Ultimately, Snapchat pushes to further a fundamental understanding that our critical engagement with everything around us is for those we already understand ourselves to be in communication with, and what is in front of us is only significant insofar as it can be reduced to the language of this medium.
Here, we have an understanding of the risks this medium poses to its users and their understanding; what about the subject matter? I’ll start off with some words of a friend of ours:
The feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera, as Pirandello describes it, is basically of the kind as the estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public. Never for a moment does the screen actor cease to be conscious of this fact. While facing the camera he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers that constitute the market. This market, where he offers not only his labour but his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach.
This is Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility”. Imagine sitting beside Walter in a concert or some other event today as people all around dawn their cell phones over their eyes as the opening act starts up. What is captured is not only the heart and soul of one man, but that of a whole social identity or scene — and it’s not the same after it’s been put up before itself and transported outside of itself (to the public, by, and for the individual gain of, the filmers behind their lenses). Participation in “interesting,” “fun,” or especially “popular” social events now seems to necessitate being filmed. And when a critical mass of individuals story-fy an event, they ultimately make the thing a stranger to itself. The group is, in fact, no longer a group, but a congress of reporters, awkwardly wondering if they should still dance to the music, if they can still hear the music at all.