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To Make A Long Story Short: Snapchat as performance art for the information age

Opinion | December 9, 2013

Certain forward-thinking historians have begun calling our current era the “Information Age.” While this idea may be a little over the top, it isn’t entirely without merit. It’s fair to say that the average person living in our time has access to more information than those living at any other period in history. Moreover, the technology that delivers that information also makes it available to us at any time we want. In the end, we are positively drenched with information. Your TV gushes audiovisual data into your living room like a faucet. Your computer is more like a bathtub, immersing you in information at your leisure. Your smartphone, though, is a saline drip, feeding you data at a constant rate, whether you like it or not.

Of course, I have to add the caveat that more information isn’t necessarily better; what matters is how we perceive that information, consciously or unconsciously. Perception of information controls what we do with it, how much value we assign it, and how we consume it; perception determines where we place certain information within the greater social context.

Perception, though, is tricky. It can be influenced or even flipped on its head by the smallest of ideas—sometimes those that are not even fully grown, ideas that are embryonic. Those kinds of thoughts can be so small that they take you by surprise. This happened to me a few weeks ago when I was riding a train. I was talking to a friend the way that friends do, covering anything and everything. The conversation turned, as they tend to do, to something random: Snapchat.

A quick primer on Snapchat: it’s an image-sharing app that is currently responsible for the vast majority of the world’s selfies. It’s similar to a plain old picture message, with key changes: Snapchats can be captioned with one line of text or drawn on in MS Paint style, and most importantly, they disappear after a set amount of time from three to 10 seconds.

Our conversation started out by breaking down how different people we knew used Snapchat in vastly different ways, and then worked its way to the topic of Snapchat as a whole, cohesive means of communication. I was somewhat less than bullish on its future potential, especially considering the recent decision of its founder to decline massive buyout offers, including two from Facebook and a rumored $4 billion one from Google. After all, Snapchat is relatively useless as a practical means of communication. Without that core of practicality, I figured it would pretty quickly fall out of favor—its enterprising creators should have taken the money and run.

Then, my friend tossed a small idea out there: maybe Snapchat is a form of performance art that isn’t supposed to be a practical communication tool. Thinking back, I can actually almost see the idea as a physical thing, a gift-wrapped box sitting on the linoleum floor, waiting to be picked up. We quickly moved on past the subject of Snapchat, but the idea stayed with me.

Snapchat’s limited nature is the most important thing that sets it apart from the rest of the information trickling out of your phone. When you sends a “snap,” you are sending something that they controlled entirely and which the recipient cannot hold onto or interrupt. Regular communication involves a back-and-forth unpredictability, creating the chance that something you didn’t want to reveal may be revealed. Someone using Snapchat, though, sends out something stylized and controlled that they think or hope will produce a certain response or create a certain mental image of themselves for the recipient. This, in turn, explains why people have their own idiosyncratic Snapchat styles; they are trying to express a certain image of themselves. They are performing.

Like other forms of performance art, Snapchat doesn’t encourage conversation with the creator. It doesn’t store old messages, and it forces you to converse by creating discrete, non-continuous statements. A conversation conducted via Snapchat is closer to a dance-off or a series of dueling musical numbers than an email chain or phone call: limited statements, wherein replies are based only on the memory of past statements.

Snapchat also is a performance art in the way it forces you to send out discrete packets of information. A sent snap is gone, finished. This is analogous to how at the end of an individual performance of a play, the audience understands that what they just saw will never be replicated, as each performance has its own minor differences that add up to a unique result. The audience for tomorrow’s show may see the “same” play, put on by the same actors and read from the same script, but the discrete piece of performance will necessarily be different. Similarly to Snapchat, you, the sender, have created something unique and not reproducible—an attempt at reproduction would immediately create a new work, with a different context, open for different interpretations.

What is so important about this perception of Snapchat? Changing your perception, or at least acknowledging the existence of different perceptions pertaining to some particular piece of information, can hold explanatory power for what other people do with that information. It can be nice to have some idea why people act the way they do. Perhaps, like my friend on the train tacitly suggested, people use Snapchat in different ways because they view it in completely different lights.

On a grander scale, thinking about Snapchat—lowly, uncouth Snapchat—as performance art for the Information Age gets me thinking about what else has been flying under the radar, perception-wise. What other technologies of the modern world have been limited by perception? An example of this that I have come across is one of those applications of existing discoveries that seems plainly obvious in retrospect but also has a sort of parsimonious genius to it. I recently read about engineers in the Netherlands who had the idea to use existing LED and wireless charging technology as the basis of “smart roads,” highways that blink out signals to drivers, warn of foul weather, and even recharge the batteries of electric cars.

Think about that for a minute. LEDs are scattered all around our living spaces—a fun game to play is to look around your bedroom and see the constellations of LEDs. Wireless chargers also exist in the realm of small electronics; they’re common enough that you can find them in most Starbucks coffee shops. Using them to smarten up highways was just a matter of applying a technology of inches on a scale of miles, of seeing those already developed technologies in a different light. The same goes with Snapchat, that perception can put old ideas like picture messaging or electronic displays up to new tricks. Snapchat isn’t just about selfies and sexting, but rather represents a new way to perform and create art. In the right hands, it can be an opera without a stage, an orchestra without a conductor, a painting without paper.