Sep 20

The Liquid Self

Social media doesn’t need to be what it has come to be. Social media is young, growth comes with pains, and we should keep questioning assumptions and push this new media to new limits. My first post here on the Snapchat blog, fittingly, questioned the assumed permanence of social media content. Permanent content is just one option, a choice with far-ranging implications, and it isn’t necessary. Here, I’d like to think about one major consequence of permanence: the social media profile.

The familiar social media profile is that collection of information about you and/or created by you, usually with some other people you’re connected to. Profiles structure identity in more or less constraining ways: real name policies, lists of information about our preferences, detailed histories and current activities all comprise a highly structured set of boxes to squeeze oneself into. Further, as our documented histories grow, the profile grows both in literal size as well as in weight on our minds and behaviors.

The social media profile attempts to convince us that life, in all its ephemeral flow, should also be its simulation; the ephemeral flow of lived experience is to be hacked into a collection of separate, discrete, objects to be shoved into the profile containers. The logic of the profile is that life should be captured, preserved, and put behind glass. It asks us to be collectors of our lives, to create a museum of our self. Moments are chunked off, put in a grid, quantified, and ranked. Permanent social media are based on such profiles, with each being more or less constraining and grid-like. Rethinking permanence means rethinking this kind of social media profile, and it introduces the possibility of a profile not as a collection preserved behind glass but something more living, fluid, and always changing.

***

Recording identity into categories on social media isn’t all bad and my goal here is not to argue they should disappear, but rather ask if they can be rethought, made into only an option and perhaps not the default? Can social media be created that doesn’t ask us to work ourselves into as many identity-containers given that humans and identity itself are fundamentally fluid and ever changing?

To get at this, let’s think for a moment about that common, and distinctly modern, cultural truism found in children’s stories, self-help books, and everyday advice asking us to be true to ourselves. We are to discover and remain faithful to that real, authentic version of who we are. It can often be good advice, but if you cringed at reading the word “authentic” any bit as much as I did typing it, then you already know that advice can leave little room for anything other than having just one self, regardless of time and place, and as such runs the risk of discouraging change. There’s another school of thought, one that understands identity as never solidified and always in flux. Instead of a single, unchanging self, we might consider a ‘liquid self’, one more verb than noun.

This is abstract, I know, and we won’t settle this philosophical debate on a blog, but the Internet has played an Interesting role in this tension between identity consistency and change. The tale is a familiar one by now: the Web arrived pregnant with the possibility of rethinking who we are by transcending geographic location, physical ability, as well as things like race, gender, age, even species [though, this detachment was always only a fantasy]. The New Yorker cartoon infamously joked that, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. As the story goes, however, the Web went mainstream and commercial. It got normal and somewhere along the way spontaneous anonymity became replaced by consistent identity. Now that everyone knows you’re a dog, it’s difficult to be anything but.

Social media has come to put a tremendous emphasis on our own identity, constantly recorded, always accumulating, stored, and presented back to us in an always-available profile of ourselves. Yes, Identity can be a source of importance, meaning, history, and pleasure, but, today, identity is rapidly piling up, exponentially increasing our own contact with ourselves. The profile photo, the background, what you like, what you do, who your friends are all lead to a never ending and always growing self-surveillance that’s paired with a healthy dose of being watched by others, too. What can be in one breath “self-expression” can be in another “self-policing” when who you are (and thus who you are not) become increasingly part of everyday life.

Self-expression, when bundled into permanent category boxes (digital or otherwise), has the danger of becoming increasingly constraining and self-restricting. Given that pressure to be “real”, authentic, and “true to yourself” as mentioned above, this massive evidence of one’s own self can become limiting and impede identity change. My worry here is that today’s dominant social media is too often premised on the idea (and ideal) of having one, true, unchanging, stable self and as such fails to accommodate playfulness and revision. It has been built around the logic of highly structured boxes and categories, most with quantifiers that numerically rank every facet of our content, and this grid-patterned data-capture machine simply does not comfortably accommodate the reality that humans are fluid, changing, and messy in ways both tragic and wonderful.

***

While social media is in its adolescence, it has yet to comfortably incorporate adolescence itself. By that I do not mean young people specifically, but instead the type of change and growth that is healthy regardless of age. The default of requiring social media users to permanently record and display themselves damages the invaluable importance of identity play. Put differently: many of us desire social media that is less like the mall and more like a park. Being far less standardized, constrained, and policed, yes, the park is somewhere you might do something a little dumb. Knees get scraped. But mistakes shouldn’t be fully avoided, which is what dominate, permanent social media demand, resulting in constant over-anxiety about what’s being posted. A healthy corrective to existing social media would be to create platforms that provide more room to behave without that behavior always defining who one is and what one can do. The idea of non-patrolled spaces for expression can be frightening, but a lack of such spaces is far more worrisome.*

Dominate social media has thus far taken a stand, a radical one in my opinion, for a version of identity that is highly categorized and omnipresent, one that forces an ideal of a singular, stable identity that we will continuously have to confront. It is a philosophy that doesn’t capture the real messiness and fluidity of the self, fails to celebrate growth, and is particularly bad for those most socially-vulnerable. I wonder how we can build social media that doesn’t always intensify our own relationship to ourselves by way of identity boxes. I think temporary social media will provide new ways of understanding the social media profile, one that isn’t comprised of life hacked into frozen, quantifiable pieces but instead something more fluid, changing, and alive.

Nathan Jurgenson, Researcher

*Note: The idea that a person should have a single, stable, true or authentic identity is most difficult for those who are more socially vulnerable. Having only one, unchanging identity may not seem all that problematic if who you are is not often stigmatized and penalized. However, there needs to be far more recognition that many people justifiably enjoy and need some social-closets where identity can be played with and not put on bright display because the potential consequences are greater. Race, class, sex, sexuality, ability, age, and all the other various intersections of power and vulnerability need to be part of the discussions around how social media is built, used, and improved.

Jul 19

Temporary Social Media

Technology has a way of making time simultaneously important and baffling. Communication technologies from speaking to writing to recording sound and sight disrupt temporality, mixing the past, present, and future in unpredictable new ways. This chaotic atemporality is part social media’s interest—or at least it’s what interests me. Specifically, the fact that the social media built so far has a particular, and peculiar, orientation to time: an assumed inevitability of recording most everything forever.

Most of our personal understandings of, as well as research on, social media presume that what we do online can be and likely is permanent. The photo posted today will be around tomorrow. Sometimes that is a satisfying thought: that we can one day look fondly upon this moment. Sometimes it’s the horrifying notion that something we are doing now will come back to bite us later. While there is some research on the deletion of social media content—for instance danah boyd’s terrific work on “white-walling” where users periodically delete their content—most of our understandings of social media assume content is mostly permanent. For instance, Rob Horning rightly points out, that the “self” is increasingly intertwined with data and social media documentation, arguing,

ubiquitous surveillance will be the fundamental fact about subjectivity from here on out. There will no sense of self that doesn’t take into account how the self has been or will be recorded, how that self will turn up as an artifact of online searches

“Recorded” and “artifact” are certainly appropriate terms now, with the former assuming the latter. But does recording always need to be seen as an inevitable future artifact? Do we need to continue to assume that social media content needs to be forever? I’m curious as to what happens to identity if social media emphasizes less enduring recordings and instead something more temporary. It would be identity less concerned with itself as a constant “artifact”, a less nostalgic understanding of the present as a potential future past and instead an identity a bit more of the present, for the present.

Simply, what if we rethought the whole idea of the assumed permanence of social media? What if social media, in all its varieties, was differently oriented to time by promoting temporariness by design? What would the various social media sites look like if ephemerality was the default and permanence, at most, an option?

It’s easy to underestimate the significance of injecting more ephemerality into social media. But to make social media more temporary fundamentally alters our relationships to online visibility, to data privacy, content ownership, the “right to forget.” It alters the functioning of social stigma, shame, and identity itself.

Beyond the ‘right to forget’, what about the possible erosion of the obligation to remember?

***

We think about how the high school student’s name will appear in search results years down the road, or how presidential candidates will run against their own online profiles of past. Indeed, that common declaration, “I’m so glad I didn’t have social media when I was young!” is ultimately a way of asserting how big a problem our present will be when excavated in the future. The message is often that we should be ashamed about what we are doing, that what we are creating now will bring stigma in the future.

It is deeply important to recognize the harm that permanent media can bring—and that this harm is not evenly distributed. Those with non-normative identities or who are otherwise socially vulnerable have much more at stake being more likely to encounter the potential damages past data can cause by way of shaming and stigma. When social media companies make privacy mistakes it is often folks who are not straight, white, and male who pay the biggest price. This is why movements like the right to be forgotten are so crucial.

There is, however, a tension here: we should be careful not to couch the possible benefits of temporary social media as promoting hiding from your past in shame. As I’ve argued before,

When we applaud not having records of our own embarrassing past, a document of how we’ve changed over time as individuals, we are equally celebrating the cultural norm that expects perfection, normalization, and unchanging behavior. What if more people wore past identities more proudly? We could erode the norm of identity consistency, a norm no one lives up to anyways, and embrace change and growth for its own sake. Perhaps the popularity of social media will force more people to confront the reality that identity isn’t and can’t be flawlessly consistent.

Framing data deletion as about hiding from one’s past might actually further the stigma of a little digital dirt, that being human and changing is something to be ashamed of. A healthier attitude towards our documented pasts would be to embrace how different we were before, even if there are significant mistakes. Change could be seen as not a flaw but a positive, as evidence of growth; an identity feature rather than a flaw.

***

I’d like to suggest a second a way of understanding temporary social media, not as hiding from the past but as embracing the present. I began writing about Snapchat in an essay for The New Inquiry this past February arguing that one thing ephemeral media like Snapchat does is change our everyday vision from using social media to focus on a series of future pasts to embracing the present for its own sake. While documenting our lives isn’t new, the types and degree is: social media, smartphones, and the rest of our proliferating technologies of documentation encourage people to view the world in the present as a potential photo, GIF, video, status update, check-in to be archived. And, importantly, social media in particular provides an audience for our ephemera, which is partly responsible for our willingness to document ourselves and others so thoroughly.  

This culture of documentation in the age of social media has emerged as particularly nostalgic. Because what we do on social media is so often quite permanent, this ‘documentary vision’ tends to be a sentimental gaze. The faux-vintage photo filters that have made recent digital snapshots look as if they were aged by time are a terrific example of the ‘nostalgia for the present’ that happens when almost any moment can be so perfectly remembered. Permanent social media encourages an understanding of the present as documentable. Conversely, temporary social media is anti-nostalgia, letting the present be good enough right where it is.

Because of this, temporary social media has a complicated relationship with memory. Part of the appeal of permanent social media is being able to look back and remember so much of our lives. But the logic that the more we save the more we remember might break down at some level of hyper-documentation, perhaps remembering things less if they are perfectly recorded. By offloading memories and some of the work of remembering to databases, we don’t really need to remember that vacation because it’s been so thoroughly stored in expanding digital photo albums; archives so numerous that they’ve become increasingly trivial to the point that you may rarely check back in on them at all. Alternatively, not recording something for posterity can mean remembering more. For example, the Snapchat countdown timer demands an urgency of attention; when you look fast, you look hard. The image might not be perfectly remembered but the story it tells and how you feel in that moment become most salient. Permanent social media fixates on the details of a photo, whereas temporary social media fixates on what it meant and what it moved within you.

In this way, temporary social media might also be an antithesis to social media triviality. Typically, to document something was to declare its worthiness of attention; but when documentation expands so exponentially, as is occurring today, the importance lessens. In the near future the near past will be less scarce because the current present is so abundant. Logging into social streams today often feels like a bazaar of banality, the everyday ephemera that populates these sites has deeply eroded any essential link between “document” and “importance”. When photographs were scarcer, photographic documentation inferred some level of importance whereas today the sight of someone photographing their burrito is a joke. The abundance of photographic documentation has created its own inverse: not photographing a moment often conveys importance, for instance, not snapping a picture of your food can demonstrate respect for the establishment and your company. In the age of hyper documentation, the photograph specifically and documentation in general are becoming less about importance and more about banality. Temporary social media creates some much needed scarcity, interrupting the cycle of documentary accumulation by not allowing them to amass. We’ve been hoarders of the evidence of our own lives; there is no important archeology when everything is saved.

***

Am I fetishizing the ephemeral, the present, the current moment? To a degree, yes. Social media is young, and I hope it grows out of this assumed permanence of our data. A corrective, an injection of ephemerality, is badly needed and overdue. The present doesn’t always need to be owned, held still and fixed; sometimes it might be best left alone to simply be what it is, letting more moments pass not undocumented and unshared, but just without enforced documentary boxes and categories with corresponding metrics filed away in growing databases. Instead, temporary social media treats the present as less like something that aspires to be curated into a museum but as something that can be unknown, unclassified, not put to work.

None of this is to say we should give up on more enduring documentation. Temporary social media does not really oppose durable social media. As I admit above, many of us cherish artifacts from the past. There is an appeal to a timeline of important life-events. But permanence shouldn’t be the standard, and perhaps not even the default. Let’s better consider time as a variable in a complex social media ecology where things aren’t so often shared forever. Yes, many existing sites have some deletion capabilities on their platforms, but what if more social media has ephemerality built in from the ground up?

These are the sorts of questions and issues I want to work on and encourage others to think more about. The Web doesn’t mean the end of forgetting; indeed, it has demanded it.

Nathan Jurgenson, Researcher

Jun 24

Recent Additions to Team Snapchat

When we launched Snapchat in September 2011, we were finally ready to share something we loved with the rest of the world. We had created a different way to communicate with our friends - it felt more personal, and it was a lot more fun. We hoped the rest of the world would love it too.

The response has been absolutely mind blowing. Less than two years later, Snapchatters are sharing over 200 million snaps every day. And thanks to our incredible and hardworking team, we’ve been able to support the growth of Snapchat with minimal overhead.

But in order to continue scaling while developing the Snapchat experience, we needed to build a bigger engineering team and figure out how to pay our server bills.

We’re fortunate to welcome IVP to Team Snapchat as the lead investor in our recent Series B financing. General Catalyst, Benchmark Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and SV Angel also participated in the round. We are thankful for their belief in the Snapchat community and we look forward to working with them as we continue to grow.

We have also added Michael Lynton as an independent board member. Michael is a remarkably talented and creative executive who believed in Snapchat way before it was cool. He is a tremendous role model and we are grateful for his time and energy.

Long story short – we’re committed to building a big company around an innovative and fun product. And we know we can’t do it without you. So thank you for your endless support and enthusiasm for Snapchat. It means the world to us.

There are some really exciting surprises around the corner…

Love,

Team Snapchat

Jun 22

iOS Update: Bug Fixes and More!

Team Snapchat has been growing by leaps and bounds this month. The arrival of summer has brought with it summer engineering interns and other new members of the team. We’re excited to be picking up the pace of development!

There’s a new iOS version available in the App Store today. It includes some critical fixes for bugs and crashes, so please download it if you’ve been experiencing issues.

We’re also trying out something new in this release. As you may know, Snapchat is for teens and adults— children under the age of 13 are not allowed to create accounts. The previous iOS update introduced age-gating, in which we asked people their age on the registration screen and didn’t allow them to proceed if the age entered was under 13. This was a pretty standard way of handling things, but it didn’t provide a very good experience. So now, in addition to age-gating, we’ve decided to try something a little different.

In the new iOS version, kids under the age of 13 are able to fill out the registration form, however their user information is not sent to us and an account is not created. Instead they are able to use “SnapKidz” a version of Snapchat that includes an interface for taking snaps, captioning, drawing, and saving them locally on the device, but does not support sending or receiving snaps or adding friends. We’re trying it out first on iOS and if all goes well, we hope to include it in an upcoming Android update.

While we were at it, we updated our Privacy Policy. We hope that the new version provides more detailed information about our practices. Don’t worry though, we haven’t changed the way we handle your information, including storing and deleting snaps (see our earlier blog post for details on that).

We also tweaked our Terms of Use to account for SnapKidz and a few other things that needed updating. We’ll be editing the Terms of Use from time to time as we continue to make it easier to read and understand.

Happy Snapping!

Team Snapchat

Jun 6

NoFace Chillah

There is no one face to Snapchat. Every day millions of us in the Snapchat community share how we feel, where we are, and what we are doing. Sometimes its happy or funny, sometimes sad or bored, but most importantly - we communicate who we are in the moment.

Many of you have noticed that in our latest iOS update, v5.0 Banquo, our mascot no longer has a facial expression. This isn’t because we forgot the face - it’s because you are the face of Snapchat

Letting go of the silly grin means that our mascot gets to have all sorts of fun expressions and personalities - reflective of the diverse experiences shared by the members of our community.

May 9

How Snaps Are Stored And Deleted

There’s been some speculation lately about how snaps are stored and when and how they are deleted. We’ve always tried to be upfront about how things work and we haven’t made any changes to our practices, so we thought it’d be cool to go over things in a bit more detail.

Storing Snaps

When someone sends a snap, it is uploaded to our servers, the recipient(s) are sent a notification that they have a new snap and the Snapchat app downloads a copy of the message. The image or video from the message is stored in a temporary folder in the device’s memory. This is sometimes in internal memory, RAM or external memory like an SD Card—depending on the platform and whether it’s a video or a picture.

Deleting Snaps From Our Servers

When a snap is viewed and the timer runs out, the app notifies our servers, which in turn notify the sender that the snap has been opened. Once we’ve been notified that a snap has been opened by all of its recipients, it is deleted from our servers. If a snap is still unopened after 30 days, it too is deleted from our servers.

Deleting Snaps From the Recipient’s Device

After a snap has been opened, the temporary copy of it is deleted from the device’s storage. We try to make this happen immediately, sometimes it might take a minute or two. The files are deleted by sending a “delete” instruction to the phone’s file system. This is the normal way that things are usually deleted on computers and phones—we don’t do anything special (like “wiping”).

Extra Details

While an unopened snap is being stored on the device, it’s not impossible to circumvent the Snapchat app and access the files directly. This isn’t something we support or encourage and in most cases it would involve jailbreaking or “rooting” the phone and voiding its warranty. If you’re trying to save a snap, it would be easier (and safer) to just take a screenshot or take a picture with another camera.

Also, if you’ve ever tried to recover lost data after accidentally deleting a drive or maybe watched an episode of CSI, you might know that with the right forensic tools, it’s sometimes possible to retrieve data after it has been deleted. So… you know… keep that in mind before putting any state secrets in your selfies :)

Team Snapchat

Apr 16

Snap Spam (Ew.)

Early this morning, some Snapchatters alerted us that they had received unwanted snaps from people who weren’t their friends. Upon initial investigation, it appears that an individual created multiple accounts and sent snaps to Snapchatters with public accounts. 

Our engineering team responded quickly (nice work guys!) by temporarily turning off new account creation and preventing Snapchatters from receiving snaps from friends that they had not previously added on Snapchat. 

Spam is a problem on many services with large audiences. We know spammers totally suck and we’re working on a long term solution to prevent spam from entering your feed. In the meantime, please adjust your settings to determine who can send you snaps. For a spam-free experience we recommend “Only My Friends” :)

Sorry for the spam - we’ll keep you updated as we work on this issue.

Evan

Feb 22

Snapchatter

Feb 21

Video on Android is Here!

Over the last four months, Android snapchatters around the world have been sharing experiences through photographs, words, and drawings. Today we are thrilled to announce the arrival of video to our Android community! It is hard to imagine that just a few months ago we were beta testing our app with just a few new friends in Norway. 

Making Snapchat video for Android has been exciting, but has also had its fair share of challenges. The Android phones that many of us use were never designed with Snapchat in mind, and that can be tough when developing a hardware-based application. The video feeds and playback behavior can differ greatly - often with no guarantees or warnings. Some users will still experience difficulties, and we want to work with you to make Snapchat perfect (email us!), but we hope many of you simply come to love video snaps.

But it isn’t just video! We have revamped our notification system to give you more informative, exciting, and customizable notifications from your friends. Snapchat on Android will now have significantly more reliable behavior when you are out and about, and we have improved both camera frame-rates and navigation speed by redesigning portions of our camera.

It is so much fun building this app for the Android Snapchat community. We have a ton of great updates on the way - stay tuned and happy snapping!

Daniel

Dec 14

Our Biggest Update Yet: v4.0 Phantom!

It’s been a busy couple of months at Snapchat. With over 50 million snaps shared every day, we’ve had to do a lot of work to make sure our service can continue to support a growing community of snappers. Today, we’re thrilled to announce a major update to our iPhone application – video snaps!

Snapchat is all about sharing moments as they happen, and video is a great way to capture those moments.  Unfortunately, with most camera applications, by the time you’ve switched from your still camera to your video camera and are ready to go, you’ve already missed the moment. It’s really frustrating. So we built something different – and we think it makes a lot more sense.

Instead of toggling back and forth between a photo and a video setting, we’ve combined them into one button.  If you want to take a photo, just tap the button.  If you want to capture video, hold the button down.  When you’re done recording, lift your finger. Super simple. Video snaps are up to ten seconds long, and like photo snaps, can only be viewed once in the application.

But that’s not all – this update has a lot of great stuff. We’ve made capturing and sending faster with a full-screen preview, added landscape captions (just rotate your iDevice!) and there’s a new settings page to help you manage who can send you snaps.

As always, we appreciate your feedback! Feel free to shoot us an email if you need help or just want to say hi: support@snapchat.com

Snapchat is lovingly built in Los Angeles, California.