“I love Snapchat. It’s fun.”
This was a 30-year old man sitting across from me, who for some reason, had the app preferences of a twenty-one year old girl.
“I just don’t get it. If I want to send you a picture, I can just send it to your phone in a text, or tag you on Facebook. It’s the same thing,” I said.
It’s not that I haven’t given Snapchat a chance. I tried it. And aside from its horridly uninspired logo/icon choice, its features didn’t inspire much within me, either. Then there’s the shade. If first impressions are still considered a culturally significant indication of integrity, Snapchat comes off like that creepy Internet date that shows up looking nothing like their profile picture—and then says nothing about it; it doesn’t make you feel very safe. Building an entire brand on the notoriety of being the number one choice for sending dick pics isn’t exactly putting your best foot forward. And besides, my dick pic days died with the insecurity of my early twenties, back when sex was the currency of self-esteem.
We continued to deconstruct the fundamentals of every major Internet communication platform. Amongst all of them, Snapchat had to represent something different, something more important than sexual lure.
“Snapchat is about stories. You create stories with the videos and pictures.” He said.
“Yeah but Instagram does that. But the pictures stay up forever— unless you delete them. The key difference is that Snapchat posts disappear. What’s the significance of that if not for dick pics?” I shot back.
“The fact that pictures and videos disappear encourages people to check it more frequently. I also find myself posting more frequently, too. Instagram is more about taking your time to post beautiful pictures. With Snapchat, I don’t too much about composition and making a statement. I just want to post.”
“So because the things that you post will disappear, it seems like you don’t have to care as much about quality. There’s a certain sense of security in knowing that it won’t be there forever, unlike Facebook or Twitter.” I said.
“Yeah. Like Facebook is for sharing with your friends, but everything stays on the wall. And Twitter is more public; you can interact with anyone at any time.” He waved his arms in the air, simulating what I imagined to be symbolic for the overwhelming nature of the Internet.
“It’s interesting how the Internet has become a place of permanence where we often warn ‘once you put it out there, you can’t take it back’. But then, Snapchat kind of defies that and makes communication safer again—personally anonymous, like it used to be (and thus, dick pic app #1).”
We sat and allowed our glances to confirm that we both arrived at the same conclusion. It was clear now why Snapchat had not only become one of the largest mediums for exhibitionism, but a preferred choice amongst a generation that grew up with warnings about the power of the Internet as a permanent marker. Freedom is in the details, and for Snapchat lovers, it’s in the lack of details left behind.
THE DARK AGES OF THE INTERNET
If you were alive in the mid to late 90’s you remember the magic of instant messaging. (Oh man, I just got the nostalgic feels). America Online and its subsequent AIM program were the flagship catalysts that inspired a cultural revolution of disclosure. When it came to instant messaging, nothing was off the table. Whether it be a rhetorical political beating, secrets with friends, or the profession of undying love for that special someone, Internet conversation was hot. But what made it so hot in the first place was privacy. As it turns out, anonymity was the greatest currency of the dark age of the Internet.
It was the promise of privacy implied by personal messaging that transformed the Internet into the coolest way to communicate since walkie talkies. Instant messaging provided an alternative means of personal expression and became a catalyst of psychological growth for the introvert within all of us. We took risks. We gambled with our confidence and self-worth because, for the most part, much of what was said was easily lost with the touch of button. Once you logged off, the messages were gone.
THE AGE OF FACEBOOK AND TWITTER.
When the age of Facebook began it ushered in a whole new paradigm and there came a fundamental shift in how Internet communication was understood. Unlike instant messaging, which tied identity to the creativity of absurd aliases like “Gamechamp234” and “hotgurlxOXO”, Facebook’s platform created a virtual public stage that converged with reality, as users became increasingly compelled to provide accurate information about their identity.
The push was facilitated by latter policies from Google and Facebook that justified requests for users to identify with their “authentic name” as a measure to keep the online community safe. The rationale presented by online giants—arguably in command of the majority of Internet communication—is that compelling users to use their real name keeps persons accountable online in the same way IDs, social security numbers, and addresses keep people honest in the real world. What this shift really marked was the countdown to the end of anonymity. As user agreements continued to eat away at user control and ownership of posted content, Internet culture shifted to reflect the unique realization that words written on Facebook and Twitter are done so in permanent marker. The resulting culture spawned the era of Internet permanence—a concept etched into the consciousness of millennials and all persons born just before and during the personal computer explosion of the 90’s.
THE AGE OF INSTAGRAM AND SNAPCHAT.
During the Internet dark ages, under the reign of AOL, virtually no one shared photos. Photos in the 90’s were shiny pieces of paper developed at local pharmacies for an arm and leg. Sure, you could scan them into the computer and upload them, but the process required computer skills beyond the average user—not mention money (color scanner units could set you back as much as $200+). But people WANTED to share personal photos on the Internet; any casual survey of chat rooms and instant messaging in the late 90’s would produce hoards of people frantically asking if users had scanners—which meant they could share pictures.
The explosion of personal nudity on the Internet came later with the rise of digital cameras. Most persons wouldn’t have the gall to stroll down to the local Kodak vender and develop a roll of sexually provocative shots for the sole purpose of sending them to a complete stranger. As digital cameras became affordable and the average user’s computer skills jumped, the privacy and control over one’s own digital photos promoted a correlating rise in confidence to share them—not just between users, but also on more public Internet forums.
When the dominance of smartphones came to power, on-the-go photos became a large part of social expression. This new wave of Internet culture was perpetuated by more user-friendly social networking platforms and leaps in mobile technology that allowed photos to be directly uploaded to the Internet.
Instagram’s popularity grew out of the younger generation’s growing realization that privacy on social media platforms was becoming increasingly rare. Sharing photos on Facebook was cool until college hopefuls found out that Universities and potential employers were watching, carrying out covert intelligence operations to reveal any dirt that might dash their future goals of getting an education or a job. Compelled to use an authentic name and faced with complicated privacy options that could lock you out of a larger social network experience spelled danger for younger generations. Facebook quickly became a liability, and consequently, totally uncool.
Instagram became the popular alternative to Facebook within months of its launch. With no restrictions on aliases, Instagram offered other privacy incentives that were exceedingly simple: someone is only likely to find you on Instagram if you tell them your alias; all or nothing privacy settings are simply on or off—no messiness, account holders marked “private” can decide WHO they want to see their pictures on an individual basis; only those persons you directly approve to connect with can see your pictures, not “friends of friends”.
Instagram provided just enough privacy, simplicity, and photo sharing opportunity to compel Facebook users to switch or use both. Instagram’s appeal was rooted primarily in its privacy controls, simplicity, and the followers one might garnish solely on the enduring legacy of one’s photo posts—not one’s ability to write interesting prose or “status updates”. Yet, although Instagram fulfilled younger generations’ desires for more control over their privacy, walls of photo postings continued to embody the same features of new age Internet permanence; profiles contained pictures on a public timeline that essentially stayed there since the day they were uploaded.
Then came Snapchat.
I’m not going to sugar coat this next part: Snapchat was made popular by dick pics. The desperation of millennials to be seen in the nude led to a deep void in the social communication market, where the burning desire for privacy required even greater protections against the advancing permanence of the Internet age. Younger people longed for the privacy, anonymity, and control over their photo/video sharing that Facebook and Instagram just could’t provide; Snapchat quickly filled this void.
The value of Snapchat lies in one basic principal: increased privacy by impermanence.
With the ability to share privately with friends through user subscriptions and direct messaging, Snapchat essentially takes a bite out of the mythical “public is private” cake by creating a more distinguished proclivity towards the private. Posts that disappear within 24 hours (or after one viewing) and notifications that let users know when someone has taken a screenshot of their post, allows for more control over individual content than allowed by larger and more public platforms like Facebook and Instagram. It also allows for the (almost) perfect dick pic.
SILICON VALLEY BRO TECH SOLVES AFFLUENT WHITE PROBLEMS, NOT WORLD PROBLEMS.
There’s a larger and more disturbing implication that comes out of Silicon Valley “bro tech” like Snapchat and Uber. In an recent article entitled Silicon Valley’s Unchecked Arrogance, the author offers a viewpoint that paints the problems “solved” by startups as frivolous.
The bigger issue with tech companies from the west is that, increasingly, the apps and tools they create serve to only address the most arbitrary of first-world problems. In the current shadow of increasingly alarming income inequality, child poverty and hunger rates, and the widening gap between wages and prices, it seems that communication “solutions” like Snapchat don’t do much to solve real world problems. More sobering is the realization that services like Snapchat and Uber tend to merely solve the problems of more affluent and privileged persons.
Have you ever tried taking an Uber on a Friday night at peak drinking/clubbing hours? There’s two parts to why your answer would be “hell no”:
A.) You live in a more suburban or rural community where Uber barely exists.
B.) Your working-class income can’t pay for the surge in Friday night fares due to an increase in demand.
The point here is to illustrate the bias created by the affluent bubble of Silicon Valley, where tech startups go looking to solve problems that are familiar to those who live in urban areas with money to burn—just like them.
Yellow cab prices are the same at all hours and regardless of demand—a more affordable choice for working-class persons on a budget. It’s more likely that Uber will solve the transportation problems of white, affluent, city-dwellers with high incomes and no cars that are looking for an alternative to the (often) ethnic service providers of traditional yellow cabs. In the same vein, Snapchat follows suit in its aim of providing an alternative form of communication entertainment for those with more leisure time and the income to support the latest smartphone device and service plan.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While the novelty and convenience of Silicon Valley bro tech certainly provides the public with increasingly fun and interesting products, there’s little to say about the impact they have on the lives of those with issues more pressing than ensuring the ability to take the perfect dick pic.
Also published on Medium.