This morning, Snapchat became a social network. The messaging app added a feature that lets users not only send photos and videos but effectively post them for a limited time, so friends can view them as a rolling, stitched-together playlist. It is, without question, a “profile” of sorts. This feature, called Snapchat Stories, is intended to be the place where your friends can find the most up-to-date, essential digital version of you, assuming you use Snapchat. For some people, this means it would be replacing Instagram or Tumblr or Twitter. For the vast majority of people, it’s a Facebook replacement.
Functionally, Facebook and Snapchat are worlds apart. But in the abstract, Facebook and Snapshat are remarkably similar. They’re services you use to keep up with your friends, to chat with and see pictures of the people you care about. Everything else is ornamentation.
They are, to different extents, messaging apps, and they’re competing for the same supply of attention. You might put them in the same folder on your iPhone; it’s easy to imagine how using one more would cause you to use the other less.
This is already a worry for Facebook, as demonstrated by its own failed attempt to steal back Snapchat users with Poke. But if Snapchat users start to think of their Snapchat Stories as profiles, and their friends find value in them, Facebook has a much more serious problem. And not just because Snapchat will divert attention from Facebook — because Snapchat is a total, point by point repudiation of Facebook’s entire philosophy.
Consider what happens to text once you submit it to Facebook. Unless it’s a private message, it is likely both public and permanent. A message you posted five years ago, which felt like it was visible only to a small group of friends, still exists on your timelines, where it has become more, not less, visible over time. Facebook is now in the process of making that post searchable, making it more visible than ever and fundamentally changing what it is — not a post on a wall, or on a profile, but a field in a searchable database. Facebook’s effect on data is to make it permanent, to make it easy to find. Facebook memorializes everything you give it, including likes, comments, and reactions — an awkward layer that exists to assure you of engagement, which contrasts sharply with Snapchat’s characteristically ephemeral but deeply satisfying instant read receipts.
Snapchat’s effect on all data is to cause it to deteriorate. Even if text, overlaid on an image, was sent to dozens of people — in the way that a Facebook post is often just meant for a few dozen friends — it is designed to disappear. It’s deleted when it’s received or, worst case, saved to a phone’s camera roll. If the message is never viewed it is eventually deleted automatically. Facebook is a billion-user middle finger directed at the laws of entropy; Snapchat rides the wave of decay.
(And of course no site is truly immune from it: Google’s index is plagued with link rot; Twitter’s archives, minus context, are a confusing heap of data; Facebook, while its public data is stubbornly preserved, its context — the user’s graph of relationships — risks disintegration with time.)
Adding profiles completes the metaphor. The videos that make up Snapchat’s Stories disappear after 24 hours — the entire Story will cease to exist if no new content is added for a day. If you do nothing on Snapchat, you disappear from Snapchat. This is a profound difference: Facebook profiles stay public whether or not they’re current, and only change if you update or delete them. Snapchat profiles only exist when you ask them to, and they go away as soon as you stop thinking about them.
Why this appeals to people is hard to know but easy to speculate about. Perhaps Snapchat is appreciated as a response to the ever-burdening, ever-growing liabilities of our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter profiles. Perhaps its popularity is the result of a new generation of internet users who no longer think of the internet as a different place with properties of its own. Perhaps it’s the conservative response of a younger set of internet users, who find their parents’ internet use — their serial over-sharing, their willingness to turn personal information in permanent “content” on the “web” — to be embarrassing, its every step beyond AIM profiles, the original ephemeral identities, a regrettable mistake.
Perhaps they’re the digital equivalent of the young, crew-cut Reagan conservatives rebelling against their overly permissive boomer parents.
It’s been fun to watch 23-year-old Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel embrace the growing sense that Snapchat is philosophically important; the company hired social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson, best known for his scornful coining of the phrase “digital dualism,” to write for its product blog. Snapchat, an app first promoted by its creators as a sexting app, is now pitched with sentences like this:
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.
You have to imagine it’s with a wink that Spiegel suggests this was the plan all along.