There’s a Snapchat video I sent myself a month ago in Mexico. I’m saving it for a rainy day. The video itself is inappropriate for pretty much every other medium - and it’s not pornographic or gory. It’s just that drunken revelry had by some young travelers doesn’t really fit on a Facebook page that anybody’s mom might check at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon.
In that innocuous self-destructing message, there’s something that’s too important to forget, but too intimate for a text message or a wall post or a tweet.
Snapchat separates the act of capturing an event and the sharing of it. No one ever wants to record their weird facial expressions for posterty’s sake, but man do I wanna share them. Hence, Snapchat. Facebook, by contrast, saves everything that passes through its doors.
And there’s something gained by embracing ephemerality – the giving of an expiry date. It’s the reason that I think Snapchat is the only app that has ever come close to being art. From their blog:
Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment. It’s about communicating with the full range of human emotion — not just what appears to be pretty or perfect.
That is goddamn liberating. It’s funny how much of human life can only exist in the ephemeral space between being seen and forgotten. Nothing persists, and that is where we find some freedom.
You might remember glimmers of the Snapchat feeling when trying to remember what images are on a roll of undeveloped film. Or the voice of someone who called you.
But it’s not a tool of nostalgia. It’s playing with the same tricks that make our imaginations go wild – half-remembered images, forgotten context – and it works because that’s actually what a lot of our everyday lived experience is like. Nothing is ever as unambiguous as having 21 likes and four hundred followers. Instead, the events in our lives take on the shape and color and weight that our brains somewhat arbitrarily encourage them to. We are always experiencing something as humans, never anything but, and that’s how life can feel a certain way that Facebook just can’t capture.
Literally. It cannot capture it. It may attempt to make all your data persist forever, but it cannot capture how information feels.
There are some smart apps that hack the persistence of the web, or openly flout it. Another is Duck Duck Go:
We believe in better search and not tracking.
This sounds deeply unconventional. Aren’t we supposed to accept that tracking leads to better search? That more information about our searches and our social networks will produce better results for us?
No. I don’t think anyone who’s seen Google’s vision of a social web could honestly say any different (though after using Duck Duck Go for a couple weeks, it looks like they have a ways to go). Regardless, we have bought into Google’s vision of the web. It feels constantly icky – like a close relative’s inappropriate comments – but we deal with it.
I guess the merit of these new apps - ephemeral apps, as I’ll call them - is that they isolate a feeling that got lost somewhere around the point that persistent storage of all the data, anywhere, became financially and technically feasible.
For all the talk about our brains making us feel a certain way, maybe the appeal of these new apps is far simpler than neuroscience. What’s admirable is that they embrace entropy. Which is a pretty important part of the human condition. It’s the terrifying part, granted, but also where all the fun bits occur.
We end. Our stories end. Our memories will fade from this world in ways that no filter can reproduce, that no Instagram can imagine.
It occurs to me that there’s this trend in the tech startup world, where people think that technology means doing things that are supposed to suck in data and venture capital and IPO money forever until all our brains sit in Google Jars.
I don’t expect things have to be that way. I actually don’t think people want things to be that way, either. When people say that these are early days of the web, and early days of ‘the mobile revolution’ (whatever that means), they mean that they don’t know what technology is supposed to do. The only way we answer that is by trying new things that don’t forget the oldest things.
It’s pretty obvious, though, isn’t it? Technology is supposed to do what we care about. What we, human beings, give a shit about. And no app or invention or piece of art has a monopoly on understanding the human condition.
So, every so often we look at a new way of communicating and we realize that it has something important that we forgot about for a while. Something human. Something difficult to pinpoint for even the most astute observers.
And that’s Snapchat. That’s possibly also Duck Duck Go. It’s most certainly not Facebook, nor Google. It probably isn’t the web browser in its current form.
These are the most recent words in the longest running conversation ever: the discourse over how we should interact with one another. It’s almost a political question, and it admits of no absolute answer. It just needs humans to take up the latest suggestion and see if it really is better, in some ways, than what came before.
We’re just beginning to look at technology in this light, and I’m unspeakably excited to be a part of this grand project. It comes from a place of unbelievable privilege: now that we can take it for granted that our world is so completely connected, we can take the opportunity to wonder if it should really be so.
And the answer is, I think, that we’re damn close. But as always, the devil is in the details, and certain popular devils of the internet have found a way to tempt humans into some fairly empty pleasures.
People know when they’re being had, though. And those are the people who, after having grown tired of fakery, will end up seeing what the web should really look like.