Snapchat, Huxley and Orwell

I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while why I find Snapchat unsettling. The crude and narrow observation is that while I’ve received a couple of delightful, clever snaps, I’m bemused by the inanity of the bulk of the snaps I get from otherwise sharp peers – that the medium seems somehow to make infants of them. I’ve often surmised that mediation by Snapchat would quickly make a Nobel laureate insufferable. The broader, and more sophisticated perhaps, assessment is this: Snapchat awakes in me both Huxleyan and Orwellian anxieties.

Huxley deals a lot with man’s “infinite appetite for distraction”, and extending from it, an economy of attention ruled by the inane, that nurtures an unreflective culture and allows power and privilege to operate unchallenged. I’m afraid that Snapchat, in its ephemerality and because of its structural limitations – character limit, no linking off to content, no forwarding, among others  – demands, or at least suggests as primary, vacuousness on a whole other level than media like Facebook or Twitter.

Snapchat suggests that we should share things not worth keeping, and while that informality represents interesting possibilities, including potential for departure in a way from Facebook-age identity curation, and a move towards lower-commitment, unfiltered engagement with intimate circles (closer to an in-person dynamic, some would argue), it also has a much darker possibility set.

Arguably, you can convey a lot with an image or short video and very few words, but if something like Snapchat becomes a core communication medium the incidental benefits of Facebook and Twitter – that people actually surface and converse around things of substance sometimes – will be lost due to limitations of the same.

If a world mediated by Facebook or Twitter is 80% fluff, a world mediated by Snapchat is 99%.

At the same time, there is the belief by many Snapchat users, encouraged by the company itself, in the impermanence and thus confidentiality  of communication, and a safety and liberty that extends from that. That implicit promise doesn’t quite square with the technical reality of the medium, such that it isn’t even a good tool for organizing and messaging dissent. Quite the opposite, it’s perfect for surveillance (in an Orwellian vein, if you will).

Snapchat is evolving of course, and I’m curious to see if it continues to fail at being a medium with incidental benefits, and whether it otherwise contributes to a reduced quality of discourse.

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