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  • Writer's pictureSarica Robyn

Why Snapchat signals a change in the presentation of self and a new conception of time

Snapchat is an instant photo-messaging application launched in 2011, in which users can send photographs, videos and instant messages to each other that disappear in up to ten seconds.

Changes in presentation of self

Some of the main features of Snapchat include the ‘My Story’ feature, in which photographs may be added onto a narrative lasting up to twenty-four hours and the ‘Our Story’ feature, in which user-submitted photographs and videos are added onto a live feed for a specific event, such as a festival.

As locative media, Snapchat photographs allow users to add details onto these photographs, such as their location and the outside temperature. These features function as self-promotion: to capture a photograph on holiday with a high temperature, for instance, functions to communicate: ‘look at me on holiday in the sun having a good time’. The exchange of visual material is both interactive and dialogic, as users convey information to one another within a few seconds.

What is interesting, however, is the inherent class dynamic to many of these posts on the Story features. Publishing photographs and videos on these features indicates the socio-economic mobility of the photographer to travel, have certain food and drink and companions who enjoy a similar lifestyle. In this way, Snapchat functions as tools for presentation of self premised on socio-economic mobility and aspirational identity.

Moreover, the graphic effects on filters on Snapchat create a sense of identity, disguise and presentation of a desired version of self. Not only are the images fleeting, providing reassurance that the user cannot be judged on his or her appearance for more than ten seconds, but they allow users to play creatively with their physical appearance without material effects. Such images can act as a way to represent oneself without the pressure of being judged on one’s appearance. Hiding behind filters adds theatricality, akin to performance props. Accordingly, Snapchat filters invite a gaze based on people’s own self-representation, marking a change in traditional photographic discourse.

New conception of time

Snapchat marks a shift in photographic practice by having altered our temporal relationship with images. Photographs no longer retain the same value as in traditional roll-film photography, due to a new sense of disposability and immediacy of captured photographs. Indeed, the ‘burst mode’ on the iPhone in which a series of photographs are taken rapidly in one click of the shutter, is arguably an example of our changing relation to memories. The ability to choose one photograph out of a series, signifies a new relationship with image use for making memories.

On Snapchat, the ten-second lifespan draws attention to time itself with its ephemerality indicating a shift from memory to visual communication. The aesthetic is to be momentary, acknowledging the inability of photography to freeze memories. Such a temporal aspect is not exclusive to Snapchat; it is prevalent on social media. Images that ‘go viral’ on social media often remain in collective consciousness for a short period of time before a new image undergoes the same trend, reducing the salience of the prior image. For instance, a selfie was uploaded to Snapchat by Omar Bekdash, a Lebanese teenager in 2013, whose photograph went viral after the SUV in the background of the image exploded, killing one of the boys in the image. The medium of the selfie uploaded onto Snapchat is what sparks virality as the photograph accompanies its distributability. Virality then, by its very nature, is temporal in the disposability of images.

Yet, there do exist certain practices that undermine such radical reconceptualisations of time. Most notably, users can screenshot an image sent to them so as to save a copy to their photo library. Images sent to others can also be saved in a separate file known as ‘memories’. The sense that despite the platform’s emphasised temporality, there is still a feature to counter the disappearance of images, proves salient. Perhaps this speaks to a deeper need to hold onto the presence of people and events through stored memories.

Nevertheless, while the additional feature of memories does undermine the purported raison d’être of Snapchat, the medium itself is arguably still premised on transience and in the process, marks a significant shift in traditional photographic practice.

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