Generation Snap Me

By Carlina Duan, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 20, 2013

From the passenger’s seat, I can see everything: grass, McDonald’s, speed signs we’re ignoring, food advertisements we’re not, the slender arc of the interstate, hung like a gray-swept sheet before us. “Road trip!” my sister hollers from the driver’s seat, her palm grazing the wheel. “Hey, we should Snap somebody.”

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Reaching for my iPhone, I scroll until I reach my most used app. The signature ghost mascot beams up at me, its tongue poking out of its mouth as if to suggest we’re both the insiders to some hideous secret joke. I tap. My iPhone camera pops out, and — in true selfie-mode — I pucker up in front of the camera, duck-facing it, and press the button. The October light splashes across the camera lens, obscuring my face with shafts of glitter. Typing in a quick caption, I caps-lock, “FALL BREAK! ON OUR WAYYY” and check the green boxes of all my Snapchat friends, sending to as many people as I can.

My sister and I are currently two out of the estimated 8-million registered Snapchat users, who are cumulatively trading approximately 350-million images daily. The free image-messaging phone application designed by two Stanford University students in 2011 is a hit among smartphone users. It allows users to send photos and videos to each other that disappear after a chosen period of time — users can set the image for anywhere between one to ten seconds. Users can additionally create captions and use a drawing tool to embellish photos with hand-drawn accents. Snapchat users thus communicate with one another by giving and receiving “Snaps” — images or videos which both capture and illuminate the embarrassing, the ordinary and the “selfie” of every day.

With the intent to allow users to “have fun” written into its Terms of Usage, Snapchat was welcomed into the social media sphere as an amusing, even humorous app used to take funny shots of yourself, or of friends. Even its famous ghost mascot, named “Ghostface Chillah,” after the Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clang, suggestively implies a lighthearted, easygoing tone.

As of June 2013, Snapchat has removed the facial expression from Ghostface Chillah, as a result of a lawsuit disputing the original founders of the app. Snapchat, currently worth a self-reported $800 million by its investors, faces an ongoing legal battle between three Stanford graduates: Reggie Brown, Bobby Murphy and Evan Spiegel, according to Business Insider. Brown claims that Murphy and Spiegel unfairly expelled him from the company, and in doing so, snatched away his role as co-founder of the app. Furthermore, Brown asserts that the original Ghostface Chillah design was developed by him.

With the latest iPhone iOS update, Snapchat released the following statement on its blog on June 6: “Many of you have noticed that in our latest iOS update, v5.0 Banquo, our mascot no longer has a facial expression,” the blog noted, “This isn’t because we forgot the face - it’s because you are the face of Snapchat.” The blog post further observes that the faceless mascot more accurately portrays the “diverse experiences” of the entire Snapchat community.

Despite changes to its mascot, Snapchat has continued to offer its users with one main quality: transience. Many users took advantage of Snapchat’s ephemeral, disappearing photos by capturing themselves at their supposed “ugliest.” Some users intentionally took “unattractive” pictures of one another — or of themselves — and traded them. Double chins, pursed lips and crossed eyes were documented and sent at no risk, since Snapchat images are designed to disappear.

Snapchat essentially offers its users what other social media sites could not — a way to interact with impermanence; a low-risk, personal statement of sorts. School of Information Associate Prof. Clifford Lampe observed that Snapchat might not even fall under the category of traditional “social media” sites.

“With most social media, you have public statements that go out to people,” said Lampe, who is on the Board of Publications that oversees the Michigan Daily, referencing Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “Snapchat is pretty direct communication, typically one-on-one.”

Lampe acknowledged the existing history of criticism against most social media.

“We’ve had a narrative for quite a while now of ‘How can young people be saying all this stuff on Facebook and Twitter? Don’t they realize it’s there forever?’ Well, someone said, ‘Let’s make an app where it’s not there forever,’” Lampe said.

Thus, Snapchat fills a void in the social media sphere of information that vanishes, and still maintains active communication between two people.

Snapchat also marks the recent change in social media to a more visual-enhanced culture. Communication Studies Prof. Scott Campbell notes that the history of new media was initially text-based.

“Now,” he said, “the visual component is becoming as important — or almost as important — as textual-based communication.”

Image-based communication has seemingly heightened with the Millennials, a generation comprised of people born 1980 to 2000. When I log onto Facebook, my newsfeed blares with photos of cider mill donuts, kissy-face emoticons and profile picture updates. On Instagram, a friend poses, arms poised delicately, pretending to hoist a patch of bulky pumpkins. And scrolling down Tumblr, snapshots from the “Breaking Bad” finale clutter my screen. These days, it’s hard not to find a communication outlet that lacks images. After all, we are primarily visual creatures. We like to see.

Engineering junior Raj Vir, a hacker and web designer, believes technology’s high-quality cameras make Snapchat’s visual qualities all the more appealing.

“You can convey a lot in texts, but obviously you can convey way more in pictures,” he said, “Like the old saying goes, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ and now phones with high-quality cameras allow good communication.”

And yet, the rise of images has not diminished other ways we talk to one another, according to Campbell.

“I’d consider (the visual) as an added layer of communication … it’s not taking away from other forms of communication,” he said, “This visual component is communication.”

In 2009, Campbell, one of the contributing authors to a “Teens and Mobile Phones,” revealed that two main modes of cell phone usage in teens are text messaging and sending photos to one another.

“We correlated (cell phone usage) with peer-to-peer interaction, and there was a positive correlation,” Campbell said.

So, even when young people are not together, they’re not necessarily replacing their face-to-face interactions with digital ones. They’re, as Campbell puts it, “filling in the gaps.”

In 2013, an app like Snapchat — that has the ability to both capture and dissolve the visual — seems to fulfill a desired need.

“I think we’ve always wanted to appreciate and share moments in ways that are not archived,” Campbell said. “People are not interested in archiving everything permanently. The archiving of our experiences online could become overwhelming to some.”

Not only overwhelming, but meaningless. On my Facebook newsfeed alone, it seems pointless to upload the eight iPhone photos I took of my diner breakfast from various angles, with different color effects. Rather, Snapchat is a way of privatizing communication, and accessing control. Furthermore, it helps “socially groom” relationships, according to Lampe.

“Snapchat helps younger people keep control of a message,” he said, “When I Snapchat to somebody, it’s me signaling I’m spending my limited attention on them, which helps build our relationship.”

Snapchat can thus be used to reaffirm and upkeep social relationships — a way to virtually tap on the shoulder or hug.

“What’s really important and good about (Snapchat) when it launched was that it wasn’t necessarily about the app itself,” Vir said, “It was the network of friends you had on the app. You talked to, at most, 10 friends. Every Snap you got was hand-picked for you.”

Campbell agrees.

“When you reach out to somebody with a Snapchat, that’s a symbolic gesture,” he said. “That’s an affirmation that you’re thinking of somebody, and they’re in your social circle.”

It seems the app has taken on a different purpose other than swapping selfies. Snapchat has been used to document experiences and share rather mundane moments. Snapchats aren’t only limited to portraits of people. I’ve been sent Snaps of beach-water. A nice burger from Sava’s. Cats. More cats. Slabs of fudge, with the caption “boss gives me fudge at work lol.” Lately, Snapchat seems like a way for users to record experiences rather than selfie-shots.

“I think it might just be the case of people using Snapchat more often,” Vir said, “Previously, you might’ve just used it to send pictures of your face, and now it’s just moments.”

These shared moments — documented through Snaps that disappear — mimic the true nature of ephemeral time.

“The idea of ephemeral conversations that go away and disappear fulfill a deep need for people,” Lampe said, referencing the “Right To Be Forgotten” movement in Europe, where Internet users of sites like Facebook and Google campaign for the basic right to not have permanently-stored information preserved online.

The basic need for information to disappear — to be forgotten — is increasingly advocated as a necessity. So in regards to the future, Lampe believes the ephemeral “feature is going to be important.”

And while users seem to embrace the transient nature of Snapchat, it’s easy enough to take a screenshot of a Snap, saving it forever into one’s camera roll. Traditionally, Snapchat friends are notified if a screenshot of their image is taken. However, Vir figured out a way to combat the problem earlier this year through a hack that would eventually earn him fame in the web world. Vir discovered that one could save a Snapchat screenshot without letting the user get notified. Simple: a user double-taps the home button on their smartphone after taking a screenshot.

However, Vir acknowledges that Snapchat itself is not an app that demands a lot of screenshot preservation: “They’re pretty low-quality, random pictures.”

The very nature of Snapchat photos then, is meant to deteriorate. But is Snapchat usage meant to last in the long run? It’s hard to predict. As of Oct. 3, Snapchat launched a new feature titled Snapchat Stories, which allows users to create a 24-hour Snap narrative by combining together various Snaps that last on a 24-hour cycle.

Vir believes Snapchat Stories disturbs the simplicity of the app.

“Snapchat is ridiculously simple (as opposed to picture messaging). You just open it up, and the camera is right there,” he said, “‘Stories’ adds a lot of distractions to the app. It’s less personal. I disagree with it.”

And yet another element could get in the way of Snapchat’s legacy: mom and dad. Campbell notices a consistent trend that’ll determine whether or not various communication platforms ultimately survive among the young generation.

“There’s a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game going on. Young people are hopping onto some of the new channels of new media,” he said, “Once the grown-ups get on and pay attention to what they’re doing, it loses a bit of its cultural capital for young people. It loses some of its coolness, and they move onto other new things that older generations will eventually hop onto.”

Take Facebook, for example. After Facebook caught onto the older generation of parents, grandparents, bosses and teachers, the Millennials began “reducing their Facebook activity in leaps and bounds,” Lampe said. “One thing young people like to do is maintain the boundaries against old people.”

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, we’re generationally different from one another, as well as positioned at different psychological stages of development.

“The biggest psychological consequence (Snapchat has) is that it does help a younger generation, especially a college-age generation, to establish their own identities and differentiate themselves from one another,” Lampe said, “Part of establishing identity is thinking: What does it mean to construct myself? How do I construct my identity around social circles? What audience am I presenting myself to?”

Whereas previous generations illuminated their identities through more visceral avenues of clothing, or music choice, Millennials have another mode of expression: online imaging-mediums such as Snapchat.

“It’s all about how you use these tools,” Lampe said, “If I communicate positive messages and wish you a good day, that might make us both happy. But if I just communicate anger or sarcasm, that might be detrimental to our happiness.”

As Snapchat is relatively new, it may be too early to tell. There is currently no established scientific research on the app, although both Campbell and Lampe predict studies to come in the near future.

In the meantime, walking through the Diag, I spot numerous others raising phones to their faces; to the squirrels; to the wet, reddening leaves; caught in a continuous Snapping frenzy.