Snapchat Literacy: Live and the New Forms of Storytelling

Snapchat, along with the unmistakable Doge memes, is definitely one of the stranger media trends that emerged in 2013. It’s defined by its basic concept: it’s instagram lasing for a set number of seconds, given to a certain group of friends, before it vanishes; where instagram is all about taking the most beautiful photo to be gracefully touched up by the interface (#nofilter anyone?), snapchat is at its best when the photos are at their worst, “touched up” by the most uneven of the Microsoft paint pallets.

Exhibit A
Exhibit A

But its unique spin on photos and their digital longevity made snapchat an instant sensation, and its founder, the 23 year old Evan Spiegel a multi-millionaire.

‘Course, it was that intense rise to fame and new media spotlight that dug up Spiegel’s Frat-boy past, revealing emails to his Frat bros so misogynistic, homophobic, and generally ‘douchebaggey’ that it almost read like a parody of frat life. But really, is it any surprise a Frat Daddy came up with snap chat? In a culture that encourages getting blackout-level wasted and being 1960’s-level sexist every night, wouldn’t it be great to have an app that promotes exactly how much fun you’re having right this instant, only to be a good Fairy Godmother the next day and wipe the slate clean– when you’ve got a washing machine for a stomach and a knife for a brain? Isn’t it always better to forget all the shitty things you did the night before?

photo 2 (1)

Its frat roots make perfect sense; snapchat becomes interesting once you consider how popular it’s become. I thought the app was dumb and a waste of time, and it took two months of friends pestering me or showing off all the hilarity I was missing out on before I caved and downloaded. I still don’t ‘snap’ many ‘chats’ (what would I take? what would I say? why?), but I love receiving them. Having snapchat makes you feel connected; you get in on the network of inside jokes and pics of your friends at their amazing worst. The best snapchats are always steeped in irony, with friends who are aware of exactly how ridiculous the whole interaction is, playing up the absurdity of daily modern life (as expressed through taglines like #LOL #fail #mylife #wut).

But snapchat only became fascinating for me– anything beyond the most trite of trivial– two weeks ago. The first time I saw a Snapchat Live. This one even my friends might not know. One of snapchat’s basic features is a “my story” page, where users can post a photo for 24 hours below their feed. Now, every week or so Snapchat posts a “live” chat, where anyone who taps into snapchat’s sponsored wifi gets their snaps put in this grand portal of videos and pictures. As the day (or weekend) of festivities continue, more and more snapchats are assembled onto this portal, and at anytime during the event, you can go to the portal and witness the videos or pictures assemble chronologically. When the event ends, the portal, like any other snapchat, ends too.

photo 1

What unfolds, though, is rather amazing. I’ve seen three live snapchats so far (but maybe ‘witness’ is a better word: like watching an event drive by on a bus, screaming laughing)– one of an EDM concert, a college football game, and NYC’s fashion week. Starting with the EDM concert, I thought at first it was just a place where especially dumb white kids could show off how plastered they all were. But I kept watching. As the festival moved on, links and strands between people’s snapchats became apparant– one group of skaters snapping how long the line to the concert is; another girl bragging about skipping the line; the skaters are still waiting in line; omg the concert!; omg the concert!; omg we’re BACKSTAGE! What was assembling before me was a story. An experience. On day three of the event, ominous rainclouds begin to appear; start of the concert start of the rain; the rain pelts the three girls trying to selfie their way through the concert; thunder/lightning; the concert is shut down for severe weather; multiple snapchats calling this “the worst moment of my life“. The event ended up making regional news. Sitting on my bed at 11 PM, I was a part of it.

There’s a strange aura to Live. You become immersed in the electronic world– the yell of the arena, the buzz of the festival. New York’s fashion week was captivating: brought you into their world of glamour, beauty, and pretention (buckets and buckets of pretention). Live is like a Virginia Woolf novel, where worlds are constructed– hundreds of lives– on a couple of pages by focussing in on those moments of intense feeling to construct a reality. A living breathing world.

Am I out of line by comparing snapchat to Woolf? Well fuck, of course I am! But Snapchat Live presents a form of storytelling as entrancing as it is unique.

All good stories should have a beginning, middle, and end, and the engaged subject should walk away from that story with something to think about or something answered. Let’s look at the evidence:

Setting: Eugene, Oregon. University of Oregon are battling against their (fill in the blank) deadly rivals. It’s all or nothing. Act one: the multitude of pre-parties, with beer bongs, wizard’s staves, real bongs, beer pong, and a man so drunk he thought he could Russian-dance on top of a table only to send the table to the floor and him to the wall. Act two: the stadium opens, the seats fill up, everyone goes nuts, tensions ride high– THE DUCKS WIN! Act three: the multitude of after-parties, with further drinking, further revelry, further blackouts. The message? Well like all good stories it’s up to you to interpret, but I walked away from it amazed at the scope of American sport culture and disturbed by the perverted American drinking culture. It was a learning experience.

Snapchat Live becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. Piece by piece, most snaps are idiotic or at best short-lived. Together, they form a human story. A fucking captivating one. And because it’s an entirely new medium of storytelling, imagine where it could go. For a second, maybe it doesn’t have to be so first world– maybe it could be a concerted effort to disclose urban poverty, conflict zones, or the Ebola outbreak. This second by second flash hits you again and again and again. If it makes a football fascinating, imagine what it could do with real issues? Naturally, there’s no ‘master’ or singular artist here– the most that can be done is snapchat admin opening up a Live portal. And opening it up for real issues has the potential to be controversial or problematic in completely unexpected ways. But isn’t all art like that?

Yet when all’s said and done, it disappears. A hundred years from now, a portal as flamboyant and varied as Live would be invaluable for historians; instead it’s gleefully wiped off the map. And that’s why it’s art for the twenty-first century: it’s saturated, it’s ridiculous, it’s extravagant, it disappears. As the world accelerates, what these days isn’t in danger of disappearing? Who’s to say Snapchat Live couldn’t be our mirror in the Age of Distraction?

photo 2

Whutevs, believe what you want– I’m gonna go back to playing the Doge edition of 2041. Come on doggy!


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