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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.

Digital Camera + Facebook + Alcohol = Augmented Reality

On Saturday I spent a delightful evening at Stanford's Senior Formal – it was a pretty spectacular affair. I didn’t bother to bring my camera because I can always rely on every young lady at the party having one – you've seen it: cute, pink, canon

As I eagerly wait for the photos to post to Facebook, some musings I've had at the intersection of FB, digital photography and college culture (read as alcohol) are beginning to crystalize.

The jestful adage ”if it’s not on Facebook it didn’t happen” is becoming a powerful statement of reality for young people. Many can attest, for instance, to the sort of ripples that an announcement that “so-and-so is in a relationship with so-and-so” creates in a FB social circle. 

A recent study aptly titled "Look at us: Collective Narcissism in College Student Facebook Photo Galleries" explores the ways in which FB has transformed the way we use and share personal photos. 

Authors Andrew Mendelson and Zizi Papacharissi (of Temple and U. Chicago respectively) conclude from looking at some 20k+ photos, that "the central objective among college students on Facebook was the recording and posting of their participation in the social rituals of college." No surprise there.

Certainly photos are narrative aids in telling a social-status garnering story about participation in college life. More than that, I suspect that photos serve as a sort of cognitive aid or reality augmentation. The emergence of cheap digital photography and a nearly ubiquitous sharing medium increasingly shapes the way young people parse lived experience. Bear with me here:

Over the past several years I've had dozens of day-after-the-party conversations. What I've concluded from these is that many of my peers dramatically overreport “how good a time” they had last night. Part of this is semi-conscious – tales of epic nights of mayhem are an important cultural ritual in college and people play up the "good" parts while skipping over the bad. There may be more to it than that though.

How do you tell the story of a night you don't remember very well? You reconstruct it using the clues available to you.

You have a neon-yellow drink bracelet so you know you went to the Sigma Fratty Psi party. You have a receipt for five milkshakes and $30 worth of chicken tenders in your pocket to you know you hit up the LateNight eatery. The receipt has a name scrawled on the back, so you know you hung out with a girl named Mindy (or Minty?) who could only remember 9 digits of her cell number.

Then you go on FB. There are a couple of photos of you with buddies, with pretty ladies – you were all smiling and apparently having a good time. You vaguely remember some unpleasantness, but a dozen pictures of smiling, fun-having people assure you that a good time was had all around.

Not so. That vague unpleasantness you remember – shortly after the last photo you lost track of your buddies. You wondered around feeling alone, disoriented, miserable. Then you marked your territory around a palm tree…in vomit. Having lost your keys, you then called your roommate, almost unintelligibly drunk and maybe crying a little bit, and got him to retrieve you from the hallway.

Ok, so I took this scenario to a ridiculous extreme, but this is I suspect, representative of an actual phenomenon. Facebook photos don't just tell other people what we experienced – they tell us what we experienced. And like Fox News, they're only truthful in a fun-house mirror sort of way  – the photos are out of context, plus, who doesn't try to put on a good face for those conspicuously staged, destined for FB snapshots?

Walt Whitman, Jeans and the Ethos of Gen-Y

Every once in a while someone conceives of a commercial campaign that hits with the realness, poignancy and vision reminiscent of the Great American Novel (adapted of course for a commercially saturated generation with a 30 second attention span); a commercial which captures the frustrations and aspirations of its time and holds them to the light of the nation’s most cherished ideals.

In its summer campaign titled “Go Forth”, Levi’s achieved this in a poetically compelling and commercially brilliant way. The two commercials produced by Wieden+Kennedy (of Old Spice fame) are set to grainy 1890s recordings of Walt Whitman reciting two of his masterful odes to the intrepid American spirit, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” and “America”.

The first commercial opens with a young man standing in the wilderness at dusk, flaming torch in hand. As thunder rolls in the background, Whitman’s words, “Pioneers! O Pioneers! Come, my tan-faced children, Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,” sound like the rallying call of a generation and in every corner of the nation young people look up as if suddenly alert to the possibility and adventure in the world. Whitman’s recitation continues over images of young people gathering, suiting up in jeans, and preparing to emerge from concrete cities into nature, danger and the unknown.

The second commercial opens to a night scene, dimly lit by a flickering neon sign that reads “America”. The sign is crooked and half-submerged in water and the debris in the background suggest a city in decay. As flares explode over the sign, alluding to a certain poignant verse in the national anthem, Whitman begins, “America. Center of equal daughters, equal sons. All, all alike endear’d”. The images that follow – derelict apartment buildings, violent protest – tell of troubled times while others – young, vibrant, muscled people flexing, climbing, jumping, kissing – allude to an enduring strength and beauty in the American character.

The commercials tap deep into the consciousness of today’s youth – teens and twenty-somethings increasingly disillusioned with the world they are inheriting; they tell a story about corruption and decay, crisis and stagnation but also about great American ideals, how they endure and how they can be recaptured. “What happened to that pioneering American spirit?” the commercials seem to beg of the viewer. “What happened to that brazenness that looked west across America at danger and the unknown and saw opportunity?”

As much as I hate to see great American literature coopted to sell clothes, I have to hand it to Levi’s and W+K for feeling the pulse of a generation. What’s more, I really hope Gen Y can recapture some of these ideals, and more than just aesthetically. For the web piece of the Levi’s campaign, W+K invented the fictional character Grayson Ozias. At the risk of elevating a commercial gimmick to art, maybe there is something valuable we can take from him:

“I left my home and all I knew because I feared the complacency that was growing in me. I feared that I would be content to never experience anything of America beyond the city in which I was born. But after hearing Whitman, this complacency became unthinkable, and my comfort became my greatest burden.”

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