The internet has always maintained an uneasy balance between the forces of permanence and ephemerality. The pair act out a sort of fabular never-ending struggle as theorists, pundits, and general opinion shifts our favour back and forth, with one side never able to triumph definitively over the other. We praise the archival possibilities of the internet, but are annoyed when the record embarrasses us; we’re wary of culture becoming so temporary and fleeting, and yet love when it spreads fast enough to take in the world.  I’d like to call it a ‘Sisyphean struggle’ but actually it was the Batman vs. The Joker myth that first came to mind as a parallel. ‘You wanna see this pencil disappear?’[1] The internet really doesn’t know.

The familiar battle lines of this argument have been returned to in reaction to Snapchat, an iPhone messaging app with a self-destruction feature built in. You can send text, video, or images to recipients and then choose whether that message will disappear in 2, 5, or 10 seconds. The app has been out for more than a year but it was only at the end of last month that it began to receive significant attention, as commentators hooked on to the fact that teenagers might be using it for sexting.

The story had all the necessary ingredients for a sensationalist article (Teens! Sex! Neologisms!) and, quite naturally, there was a small chain-reaction of comment pieces that oo-er’d their way through all the expected conclusions. Although thoughtful writers argued that Snapchat is actually a good thing, allowing individuals to “safely explore the sort of silly, unguarded, and sometimes unwise ideas that have always occupied the teenage brain” (Farhad Manjoo from Slate there) there were the usual knee-jerkers who claimed that the app was “promoting sexting amongst teens” before following up with a list of ‘A-LISTERS WHO REALLY NEEDED THIS APP’ (I’m not linking to the Daily Mail because obviously fuck them.)

But, as TechCrunch pointed out, it’s actually quite hard to find any evidence for or against the sexting claim, as the nature of the service deletes all photos from its servers – and who would go through them to check anyway? Plus, with over 50 million messages being sent daily and the majority of these being sent during school hours it seems unlikely that even teenagers could be that determinedly smutty.  And all this is before we even consider the fact that it’s really easy to save SnapChat content. Even if you don’t want to take advantage of the bugs in the app then you could always just take a screenshot (Snapchat alerts you when this happens, but still, the damage is done.)

All this leads us to ask that if the app is not purely for the convenience of horny teens then what explains its massive popularity? It’s been hailed as the ‘next Instagram’ by many, and its success has rattled Facebook enough (they were looking to corner the photo-sharing market with their acquisition of Instagram) that they rushed out a clone of the app named Poke. And although Snapchat’s attraction could be nothing more complicated than a desire to use something that isn’t Facebook, it seems that the lure of temporality is stirred by something even more deep-rooted than hormones.

Before we guess at ‘why’ though, we should remember that it’s often difficult to assign causation when we think about the links between behaviour and technology.  Alexis Madrigal has noted that after the invention of railroad humans had to learn to take in the landscape as a whole as they could no longer focus on the foreground; Nathan Jurgenson expanded on Emile Zola’s 1901 statement that “you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it” by coining ‘Facebook Eye’:

“our brains always looking for moments where the ephemeral blur of lived experience might best be translated into a Facebook post; one that will draw the most comments and ‘likes.'”

Looking at these examples we might think ‘ah, X or Y technology is changing how we perceive our surroundings,’ but it’s worth remembering that there is hierarchy of sorts involved; a difference between the impact of a tool offering an unprecedented capacity for reproducing images, and a societal pressure for self-documentation; between a macro- and a micro- issue, and the same is true of Snapchat. The ‘Snapchat = sexting’ meme is certainly worth some discussion (mainly to debunk it) but it’s really just a corollary of a larger technological issue of why we might want our messages to disappear.

One answer to this was posed in an excellent article by Megan Garber, who praised Snapchat’s temporality for better reflecting how our brains operate. We are not, by nature, creatures of perfect memory and Garber notes that hypterthymestic individuals – those who do have an Internet-like capacity for memory and recall – often describe the condition as “non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting.” It’s a mental state that the internet has introduced more of us to (and one I’ve previously written about.)

Garber’s argument makes sense, especially as it’s not just our brains that rely upon temporality to keep things tickly over sanely—society does as well. The conversations that bind us together, that create societies, are mostly spontaneous by nature, and the pressure of having every interaction recorded can impair this quality. The ‘drunk text’ is perhaps emblematic of how perfect recall can double down on regret;  that situation where the feeling of ‘oh god, what did I say last night’ is compounded by a helpful little screen that knows exactly what you said last night and would just love to remind you.

We need the safety-net of forgetfulness to allow us to take a chance – to criticize, to joke, to flirt – and for this reason it seems natural that the feature should find popularity in a messaging app. Garber’s argument that we should take advantage of the plasticity of the net’s architecture to make this sort of forgetful-mode more widespread is both persuasive and sensible.

However, a more cynical part of my brain wonders if this really is the only explanation for Snapchat’s popularity. In general, the ‘forgetfulness is absent on the web, but we need it for social interaction’ argument is solid—but how much does such designed forgetfulness really matter? We talk about the web’s infinite archive as if it were the same as Borges’ infinite ‘Library of Babel,’ and this comparison is more relevant than we might think. The cheapness and near-infinite capacity for memory[2] on the web allows us to record everything by default,  but the sheer scale of all this data also means that any individual bit of information is lost in the deluge. We are more like Borges’ ‘imperfect librarians’ than we care to admit, and in reality, we don’t even know the expanse of our archive—recent estimates suggest that between 35% and 90% of the web is on tape, as it were, but that’s a hell of a margin to play with.

Back in 2007 David Foster Wallace referred to this phenomenon as Total Noise—a “tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.”[3] At this time, Wallace’s coinage seems less striking and more just a statement of fact; an observation of one of the many twinges casually bestowed upon human consciousness by the spirit of the 21st century. And, like most of the aches and pains of the self that Wallace was so good at identifying, it’s not one we like to think about.

Although the archive of the web is perhaps its greatest asset, our usual experience of the internet is as a realm of constant change; once in which friends’ feeds, and publications’ front-pages are only as relevant as the last item posted. In the digital world where a static record is the new ruin, we judge sites as ‘abandoned’ not when they deteriorate but when they cease to change. In such a world of constant flux it is easy for the ordinary individual to be overlooked. As easy as it is in the physical world. Perhaps the success of Snapchat’s temporality is not because the feature is new, but because by making its ‘forgetfulness’ a selling point users can choose to own a quality that had previously only been forced upon them.  It is far better for us to recognise our inconsequentiality than pretend that our lives are always worthy of record. 

[1] Yes, I know this isn’t the right quotation. And you know how I know? Because after writing it I accidently spent 20 minutes watching Joker clips on YouTube. For those that just don’t know – this.
[2] Figures on this scaling of memory never cease to amaze. In 1998 Larry Page and Sergey Brin spent $15,000 across several credit-cards in order to secure a terabyte of storage for a search-engine prototype called BackRub (later renamed Google). A quick search with this same tool now finds terabyte hard drives that I can hold in one hand selling for around £50.
[3] From Wallace’s introduction to the The Best American Essays 2007