Nearly ten thousand researchers and no doubt thousands more students have quoted danah boyd and Nicole Ellison’s 2007 definition of social media:

We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.

It’s not actually a definition of social media, it’s a definition of social network sites, which is what we called sites like Facebook and Twitter in 2007. By 2008, people started calling them social media, and quickly adopted the definition of social network sites as a de facto definition of social media as well.

Notice, though, how that definition of social media in no way holds true for Snapchat. Snapchat is not a web-based service, individuals have no profiles, you can see which other users you follow, but not who anybody else follows, in fact, you can’t even see who follows you. You certainly can’t view and traverse other users lists of connections.

It’s as if Snapchat’s founders decided to try to create a social media that completely, in every way broke the most-cited definition of social media. Who knows, perhaps they did?

Obviously Snapchat is a wonderful example of social media. Obviously, the 2007 definition no longer holds true. The internet changed.

I spent my afternoon revising a chapter, then reading what Nathan Jurgenson has written about Snapchat. I’ve read lots of Nathan Jurgenson’s writing before, mostly on the Cyborgology blog, which he co-founded, but I guess if I did read his writing on Snapchat I just didn’t really get it at the time and so forgot it. Because yes, it took me a while to get Snapchat. Nathan currently works as a researcher for Snapchat (because yes, of course Snapchat has an in-house critical theorist) and so you can read some excellent writing from him on the Snapchat blog. Obviously. He is also on Twitter and Tumblr.

The Liquid Self” may be my favourite of his Snapchat posts, at least today, because it so clearly uses Snapchat to show us how strange social network sites like Facebook and Twitter really are:

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. The logic of the profile is that life should be captured, preserved, and put behind glass. It asks us to be collectors of our lives, to create a museum of our self. Moments are chunked off, put in a grid, quantified, and ranked. Permanent social media are based on such profiles, with each being more or less constraining and grid-like. Rethinking permanence means rethinking this kind of social media profile, and it introduces the possibility of a profile not as a collection preserved behind glass but something more living, fluid, and always changing.

Reading this made me think how short a time social media have been so dominant. Before social media, we called it web 2.0 for a short while. Before that, it was the blogosphere, or simply the web. Before that, we used Usenet and IRC and MUDs and MOOs, and before that, we used our modems to dial up local Bulletin Board Systems.

The internet has always been social. But we have only known the web for about twenty years. Less, if you want to talk about a really mainstream web used by everyone. That is a very short pocket of time in the grand scheme of things.

So many people (old like me) have asked me whether it doesn’t bother me that stories I post to Snapchat disappear. I’ve actually been saving most of them to YouTube, so I guess it does bother me, but increasingly I’ve been wondering about this. Why do we think permanent archival should be the norm? Broadcast media wasn’t archived, at least not in any way that was easily accessible to the general public, until quite recently online. We accepted that if we missed an episode of our favourite soap opera or didn’t watch the news, well, we would catch up next week. You could go to a library and dig in newspaper archives, but people rarely did. Even books regularly went out of print.

What if the idea that knowledge and communication should be permanent and always-archived is just a blip, not the new standard? What if the web itself turns out to be a short interlude, not the future? Maybe we’ve already moved on, but we haven’t really noticed?

I thought about this today, after finishing revising a chapter on self-representation in social media in the café at an indoor playspace where one of my kids attended a birthday party and another played intensely with her friend. Now that the kids are old enough that I can let them loose in a place like this, I’ve found I work wonderfully in this kind of chaotic environment, no doubt in part because I both get to feel like an awesome mum (the kids dote upon me for taking them there) and I get to indulge in one of my favourite activities: reading and writing about social media. It’s like this magical space where there is perfect life/work balance and no guilt whatsoever, neither the bad-mother-guilt nor the can-never-do-all-the-research-I-want-to-do guilt.

Of course it only lasts a couple of hours. And it probably wouldn’t work if I did it very often.

Here is the Snapchat Research Story I made about my thoughts today, with bonus noise and views of the play space.



2 thoughts on “What if the web is almost over?

  1. Jonathan A.

    I like the direction you’re taking with this exploration of Snapchat. One of the main features of SNS according to boyd and Ellison was that users were able to ‘navigate’ other users’ profiles through a displayed list of connections within the site. This feature has been optional for Facebook users the past few years, meaning that users can choose whether to display the friend list situated on their main ‘profile page’ on Facebook (as a navigable, articulated social display). So that might be the most interesting connection that SNS have to the ‘web’—a static, addressable user profile URL. Newer social media often don’t have this. Second, boyd and Ellison specifically point out they avoid using the term social network-ing sites they feel because they argue SNS are used more for existing connections than they are for relationship initiation. This is where Snapchat actually has commonalities with social network-‘ing’ sites like LinkedIn. Snapchat is very much performance-oriented and relationship initiating-focused. It’s a different kind of performance on Snapchat (LinkedIn is more about strategically displaying existing ties to secure future connections) , but it still is a form of performance networking. On Snapchat, this is where the filters come into play, literally—the platform actually provides users with digital cosmetics for dress up, play and rehearsal. So, Snapchat is a specific kind of social—less about displaying connections and more about displaying self; and it’s a special type of network-‘ing’: self-performance as opposed to social connection (lists of friends) performance. This might be troublesome is it places further burden to perform in the individual sense, and again why the use of filters might be a means for Snapchat users to create different selves for their audience(s). Hope this makes sense! If you want to talk more Snapchat, 😀

  2. Matt Linares

    There are moves to make what may be the “next web” (blockchain based) even more permanent than before, among other things, as an antidote to censorship.

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