Discovering the real face of Snapchat

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.”

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