When Snapchat came out a few years ago, I remember being confused. Messages that self-destruct? Impermanent social content? What meaning could arise from sending somebody a random photo or video that can’t be properly saved and re-enjoyed?
After all, up until that point in time, social networks were pretty much predicated on building a lasting impression of yourself. At times, your digital rep is LITERALLY your résumé. Even if you don’t know “who you are,” you can still fabricate a decidedly defined online persona. Just consider all the opinions you’ve formed of other people, however consciously, from their prof pics, favorite quotes, and status updates. And for those of us with varying degrees of IRL human-to-human anxiety, this is a welcome approach: it’s nice and safe behind a screen and a keyboard, with plenty of time and space to deliberately formulate. In some ways, social media can enable you to put your best self forward.
This was my problem with Snapchat. Though I’ve always been an eager early adopter, I was wary of an app touting ephemerality as some kind of social bonus. Snapchat makes it impossible to maintain the illusion of a deliberate version of yourself — one that is meticulously defined and curated. Therein lies the crux of ephemeral messaging that is so brilliant, yet terrifying: it’s not so much about the content you create, in and of itself, but about the ideas and impressions and feelings you evoke in sharing. You’re forced to be yourself in that moment in time, because the content is no longer quite the point.
And so you must relinquish control, and give up the ability to manage the relationship between yourself and how you want people to see you. You’re left with just you, as you really are, and that shit is scary as fuck. There is no option to edit yourself in real-time — at least, not to the extent that fancy selfie apps allow. Just as in real life, you must rely on yourself to be enough.
“That’s what Snapchat is all about. Talking through content not around it. With friends, not strangers. Identity tied to now, today. Room for growth, emotional risk, expression, mistakes, room for you.”
-Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel
In the olden days (okay fine, like 5 to 10 years ago), the limitations of technology created a gap between experiencing and communicating. There was an offline space and an online space, and they were separated by very real, very concrete barriers, so that anything you shared was a recreation of an experience.
Today, this gap has shrunken to as tiny as a two-second latency on real-time apps like Periscope. Technology today means that as soon as I experience something, I can communicate it. I can convey an experience without leaning on recreation. I can choose to live and share moments almost simultaneously — which, when you think about it, is kind of what old-fashioned, offline communication is like, no?
So, cool, another opportunity to learn how to be a person. Another chance to push myself out of my comfort zone and confront me in-the-raw. Instagram and Facebook let me selectively share one or two facets of myself, frozen in time and intentionally contrived. But Snapchat is purely outtakes. I am forced to let go of any mistakes I make, say fuck it and post it, and accept that people will think what they will of me. The beauty is that my fuck-ups won’t be permanently archived, and tomorrow, I can try again. I am learning to shake off the worry that I will be pigeonholed by my errors, flaws, and failures. I am not permanent as I am. I absolutely have the freedom and the right to break toxic habits — to grow, to be better, and to find love and happiness.
If you put aside for a second whether or not you want to share your experiences with others, perhaps you will find Snapchat to be an exercise in self-exploration. Can you communicate frankly and immediately through content, and not commentate around it? Can you take a risk in allowing yourself to be…yourself? When you really think about it, it doesn’t matter who you are “deep down inside.” All that matters is who you are In Real Life, taken at face value, because that is the only person the world will ever get to know.