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Discovering the real face of Snapchat

in Campus Journal by
Photo by Mindy Cheng
Photo by Mindy Cheng
Photo by Mindy Cheng

On January 27, 2015, Swarthmore’s many Snapchat users received a snapchat ‘story’ from Team Snapchat itself.

“Today we’re introducing Discover,” said the Team: “A new way to explore Stories from different editorial teams. It’s the result of collaboration with world-class leaders in media to build a storytelling format that puts the narrative first.”

“This is not social media,” emphasized Team Snapchat.

Holding any finger or thumb on the ‘story’ contained within the Snapchat app-frame of any smartphone, an image of a yellow sphere spins across the pixels of the screen to the music of Young Rising Son’s “High.” The National Geographic brand name eventually reveals itself with a lion’s roar, along with bits by Vice News, Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Matthew McConaughey, the Daily Mail, Comedy Central, CNN, the Food Network, and ESPN. The brands all transition into one another, covering a wide swathe of American civil society, zooming out finally from an iPhone 6 screen held in the hand of an anonymous red-head model standing beside a rail on the High Line in New York City. Every individual brand succinctly organizes itself like NYC’s grid within the palm of the woman’s beautifully moisturized hands; all brands, like neighborhoods, as available to touch and caress as the threads of her white woolen jacket, in high definition.

Snapchat’s innovative solution to revenue generation is like those new towering high-rise lux apartment buildings, such as on 432 Park Ave, that are increasingly coming to pierce the traditional skyline of Manhattan, projects and architecture worth billions of dollars; beautiful, seductive, but usually available only to those who can afford a smartphone and data-plan. The application gleams like a skyscraper in the light of the 21st century’s techno-fetish, not only altering the physical composition of reality, relationships, and memory, but displacing the real infrastructure of communication with, literally, the appearance of it.

“It’s like peering into a fishbowl,” said Lucy Peng ’15, “Passive.”

The phrase ‘to lose oneself’ takes new meaning within the frame of a Snapchat. And, as that of a new medium of exchange, a language even, the function of Snapchat obscures its forms.

“I think of it as a creative outlet once a day,” another Swattie said. “It makes me stop once a day and look at what I’m doing.”

“Little funny things to send,” said Jessie Chan ’15, “that I don’t have a lot to say about.”

Snapchat did not begin with ads for multimedia empires, status symbols gleaming over the edges of Central Park with a view of some out of reach for most, but nevertheless beautiful for all, horizon. Snapchat began in 2011 as ‘little funny things to send’ in Palo Alto, CA, invented for a class project. At first unable to convince classmates of the merits of a photo message that deletes itself after being viewed, a certain Mr. Spiegal nonetheless succeeded in setting the foundation to his skyscraper.

“Facebook depresses me because it’s all a ‘liking’ contest,” continued Peng. “I’m not an active ‘user’ of [Snapchat]. I just look at it to see other people’s snap stories. I like to live vicariously for a couple of seconds.”

Known affectionately by the term ‘snap,’ Snapchat image-messages can vary from one to ten seconds. Pictures are anything that’s ‘snap’ worthy — anything — although perhaps not noteworthy enough to deserve preservation on Facebook or Instagram, or in the limited capacity of hard-drives. A ‘snap’ has a timer that users are permitted to adjust according to taste: a setting that is encoded into the image-message, or ‘snap,’ in its journey over 3g, LTE or WiFi networks, imbued with an almost explosive ‘limited time only’ anxiety.

“I do use it sometimes,” said Jerry Qin ’17, before the release of Snapchat’s Discovery, “but I find it highly unnatural, like, for people who don’t routinely indulge in self promotion and self-portraits through ‘selfies’ […] Snapchat is still relatively confined to a close friend circle and the ‘snap stories’ are minor platforms at this point. But that is all subject to swift change.”

Upon receipt, a snap can be saved for as long as the recipient’s patience lasts, so long as they don’t press it. Upon activation, the seconds-long deadline lives out its life regardless of how long the recipient’s finger remains holding down the touch screen. Upon expiration, or a sheer lifting of a thumb from off the screen, the image passes into the next world  — reachable only, one imagines, to authorities and/or meta-data intel analysts in Colorado Springs  — unless one of course screen-captures it into one’s hard-drive.

“Personally,” said a senior who wished not be named, “I’ve never used it for sexting, but a lot of people do.”

Snapchat’s recent success, ‘sell-out,’ and monolithic ascension into corporate status, are symbols for not only the hyper-development of Palo Alto and Manhattan but of information and identity in general. The two cities  — like News today  — are as much self-selecting bubbles gradually detaching themselves from united realities as they are enclosed to only those who can afford them. They’re the capitals of the façades of fashionable innovation, the capitals of the modern world, providing the linkages and infrastructure that enable the funds, institutions, and space needed in order to create mobile advertising platforms instead of views on reality.

Think Versailles. Snapchat is just one of the 21st century’s King Louis XIV’s many courtiers, spreading witticisms, anecdotes and even sexts throughout the gardens of the palace, like arrows in battle.

“I don’t understand it,” said Vikram Murthi ’15, as a group of Swarthmore students gathered in one corner of a room at a party, holding drinks in their hands, bending their right legs and drink hands into posing positions and pouring the unnatural effort of faded smiles into what many refer to as a ‘group selfie,’ “and I doubt I ever will.”

“I wonder,” said local Swarthmore resident, Raul Jauregui, “if Snapchat is just completely missing a whole chunk of culture or the opposite, whether, say, the kind of song that used to muse about Courvoisier, and now does so about Patron, also yearns for Snapchat.”

“Social media companies,” Team Snapchat reiterated to users, after releasing Discover, a move excluding Snapchat from that bracket in a subtle military and intelligence-gathering technique known as ‘Denial and Deception,’ “tell us what to read based on what’s most recent or most popular. We see it differently. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important.”

Snapchat, like the modern Lower East Side or Palo Alto  — or Versailles in the 17th century  — is no longer alive in the authentic sense. It’s a mask for an identity that is as much technological as it is organic: a Culture Industry. Behind the façade are a series of metal semiconductors, transistors, copper, cobalt, and silicon, with the electrons passing through them, displayed in tandem with insulating plastic counterparts, high definition displays, mobile 4G networks and their cell-phone towers, in the form of a Snapchat. The ‘snap’ of Snapchat is just a glance at reality, a seductive panorama offered by a living room on 432 Park Ave, of New York’s skyline without a picture of the working-class ants that run it. The blood and guts  — the soul  — of Snapchat, on the contrary, is a reconciliation of fluid plasticity and solid metal, a sacrifice in so many words of rare earth metals, electricity born of fuels that were at one point living things, and the human beings that glue the image and the frame of a smartphone together in places like Shenzhen  — the one city, if there is one, that provides the supply to a Palo Alto or a Manhattan’s demand.

It’s in this portrait, or sacrifice of both human and natural labors, like “an ephemeral work of art” said Mr. Jauregui, that “falls under the category of ‘performance art’” — see Marina Abramovic — that we perhaps see ourselves, capture ourselves and are mesmerized by the image of ourselves passing through one of the foremost representative apparatuses, or ‘apps,’ of the 21st century’s oppressive, increasingly class-stratified, or ‘gentrified,’ reality.

As Karl Kraus might say, “People are so stupid today that they can’t read the News without images.”

Let’s Talk About Sex(ting)

in Around Campus/News by
sexting

Despite horror stories splashed across the news on the evils of sexting and the life-ruining capacity of naked pictures, Swarthmore students who use technology such as Skype and texting to have sexual interactions or exchange sexual content say they aren’t worried. Virtual sex is a normal part of long-distance relationships for some students, though they don’t believe that sexting is necessarily widespread.

Over winter break, Mary* was chatting on Facebook with another Swarthmore student, John, with whom she’d been having casual sex for the majority of fall semester.

John requested to video chat with Mary and she accepted the call. The conversation grew sexual when John asked if Mary missed having sex with him and took his shirt off.

“Then we both started masturbating, and then it progressed from there,” Mary recounted.

Video chat sex with John was not the first of Mary’s use of technology in a sexual capacity: during high school, she would send naked pictures of herself to boyfriends or those with whom she had hooked up.

“There are lots of naked pictures of me on people’s phones and computers,” Mary acknowledged, adding that she would often have phone sex with her boyfriend during high school.

Similarly to Mary and John, Sarah and her Swarthmore girlfriend, separated by a long distance, used Skype to have sex during breaks from school.

“We’d be Skyping, just normal video-chatting and talking because we were far away, and then eventually, because it’s someone you’re used to having sex with a lot, just talking to them makes you really horny, so I’d just say really forward things like, ‘I want to fuck you,’ and I’d bring my laptop upstairs to my room,” Sarah recounted.

Another — a sophomore — used Skype for sex with her long-distance boyfriend, who graduated from Swarthmore last year. She said that mostly, she would engage in sex over Skype in Kohlberg classrooms.

“I’d be studying and Skyping him, and then…” Lorelai trailed off. Sometimes, she said, her boyfriend would begin watching pornography while the two Skyped, making his desire for sex obvious, but other times, sex would result from Lorelai’s attraction to her boyfriend.

For Mary, Sarah and Lorelai, deciding to sexually engage with someone via technology is all a matter of comfort and trust, which eliminates the need to worry about sexual content going public.

Mary said that while she thought a boy might show a friend a photograph on his phone, she was never worried that her photograph would be sent to someone else’s phone or computer, even if she eventually had a messy breakup. “I knew that no one would actually do that,” Mary said.

For Sarah, Skype seemed to be a relatively safe form of having virtual sex.

“I feel like on Skype, the other person is more involved, and less likely to take a snapshot,” she said. “If I sent something via text, if someone has an iPhone they could just click ‘save’.”

Sarah said she had never exchanged naked pictures of herself, and didn’t plan on ever doing so. While Sarah said she trusted her girlfriend, she would still worry about a naked picture in the hands of an ex.

“I’d feel weird with that, because what if, one day, she was horribly mad at me?” Sarah explained. “That would make me really paranoid.”

Lorelai echoed Sarah’s feeling of security with sticking exclusively to Skype.

“Skype is different from Snapchat or text,” she said (Snapchat is a photo messaging service). “You assume that you can’t really record on Skype, unless you have some sort of special program, so in general it’s a safer thing. It’s not like your phone, where anyone can get onto it and look at the contents.”

Lorelai said she had once sent a naked picture to her (now ex) boyfriend, and regretted it after their breakup. Later, she wished she had not sent the picture, partially because she included her face in the photo. “The one rule for dirty pictures is that they should not have your face in them, and I completely forgot that,” she said.

Lorelai also realized she had not trusted her boyfriend enough to send him the photo. “It comes back when you review the relationship,” she said. “You can’t actually trust someone that much.”

Though Sarah feels safe using Skype, she will not have virtual sex with just anyone — her willingness depends upon the relationship. “It requires a certain level of intimacy and trust,” Sarah explained. While she had Skype sex with her girlfriend after only a few months of dating, she never did so with her boyfriend in high school, whom she dated for over a year.

Mary agreed with Sarah’s assessment.

“There are people that I just don’t ever send pictures to,” she explained. While Mary hooks up regularly with a boy from her hometown, she has never sent him a picture before. “I don’t feel like I want him to see it. I’m not comfortable with it,” she said.

For Mary, exchanging sexual content through technology depends upon trust and comfort rather than upon the length of a relationship. “There’s another guy who I’ve never dated — we’ve only hooked up a few times — but I find myself able to send him a picture, and not this other guy,” Mary explained. “It’s not like I can be pressured — some, I’ll say sure, and others, I’ll say no.”

Mary added that she wasn’t at all worried about having photographs or text messages made public, or being arrested on child pornography charges. Laws vary from state to state, but teenagers who have sent or received photos of themselves or others have been charged with distribution and possession of child pornography.

Instead, Mary said, she was most worried about being caught in the act by a parent or a friend. “I’d be worried that my parents would walk in while I was taking a picture, or while I was having Skype sex, or that they would hear [me having phone sex] or something,” Mary said.

Mary, Sarah and Lorelai don’t believe that using technology for sexual interactions is abnormal — in fact, Sarah said she was surprised at how normal Skype sex felt — though they agreed that it was not necessarily widespread among college students.

Mary does not think she is the only person who engages in virtual forms of sex, though she believes that sexting is less prevalent than media portrays it to be. Sexting requires some degree of sexual liberation, she explained.

“I think some people do it, but I consider myself a fairly sexually uninhibited person,” Mary said. “All the people I’ve dated are the same. I’ve dated horny-out-of-their-mind guys, so we would do things that other couples may or may not have. It didn’t ever bother me or make me feel violated,” she explained.

Ultimately, Sarah believes there is no way of knowing how many people engage in virtual forms of sex. “Looking at me or [my ex-girlfriend] you would never expect that we had Skype sex all the time,” Sarah said. “I’d be surprised to hear that anyone does it, because you never know how other people like to have sex.”


*Mary, John Sarah and Lorelai are pseudonyms.

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