When The Poke became The Snap(chat)

What does Snapchat tell us about the subconscious of young people?

Before I start to throw my opinions about, let me preface this by saying that I have never used Snapchat before and never intentionally will.  I am too old and not really the target demographic – I also have no specific need for the medium.  I do find it fascinating though and think that it says a lot about young people and their subconscious desires…

For those who have never heard of it, Snapchat is a phone app that allows users to send a cameraphone picture to another specific user.  The picture then gets seen before deleting itself, allowing the receiving user to reply in kind.

Inevitably, everyone that uses the application already has an SMS or ‘chat’ service on their phone (Whatsapp and BBM currently being the most popular), and most people can attach pictures to their messages for free  – so what are the benefits from using Snapchat?

Farhad Manjoo from The Wall Street Journal wrote an interesting blog post recently about the ‘Erasable Internet’ – basically the difference between Google’s goal of documenting and archiving all human history and Facebook and Twitter’s mission of recording all human thought and opinion; and Snapchat’s impermanence with its ‘ephermal messages’.  Because Snapchat explicitly functions by deleting the pictures, Manjoo sees this as a trend towards a more private virtual experience.

This may or may not be true.  Due to the nature of the medium and the attitude of the target demographic, it is hard to get specific data regarding usage – but even without knowing quantitative data, there are some interesting implications to be made about the young people who have adopted the application.

The first is the inevitable construction of the images.  Due to most of the pictures being “Selfies” (I can only assume, and from the little that I have witnessed from younger people around me) or other such framing that can be achieved at arms length, the result becomes a fragmentation of bodies and expressions.  The classic pose is, of course, the duckface or other such faux-ironic ‘swag’ expressions – Why would you want to send your friend/acquaintance a nice picture if it is only to disappear seconds later…?

The second complication is the motivation behind sending transient images to other users.  Most of the people that use the app would deny using it for sexual gratification (or sexting), and I imagine that a large number of users have no interest in sending and receiving nude images.  But Snapchat seems to have brilliantly replaced the now obsolete ‘Poke’ function from Facebook.

The Poke function from Facebook was present almost from the very beginning and was never really explained.  Essentially it was a way to nudge another user into recognizing you – one user pressed a button that said Poke, and the other received a message that they had just been Poked: masterful in it’s enigmatic simplicity.

If you did not want to offer a full utterance (playful sentences simply took too long to perfect) then you could merely impress a Poke upon your acquaintance and then they would remember that you existed.  It always had flirtatious undertones and, although I imagine that no one has bothered to do any social science analysis into how people used it, it always seemed to function as a gentle ego massage as someone that you hadn’t thought of in a while apparently poked you.  Snapchat seems to function in the same way.

15 years ago, students used to pass handwritten notes to each other around a classroom, and before you assume that I am getting sentimental I can assure you that is still happening, only in digital form.  Yet as younger people predominantly communicate with images instead of written words, Snapchat provides a perfect way to gently remind someone that you are thinking of them and share a fleeting emotional expression (usually of boredom, allure, hunger, idiocy, etc.)

The joy of the medium seems to arise from two central attributes:  As Manjoo stated in his thoughtful blog, the privacy and temporary nature of ‘Snaps’ gives users comfort in sharing something personal and meaningful only with themselves; yet the second apparent pleasure comes from the freedom of communicating a feeling or a reminder (poke!) without needing to anchor words within a message.

When sending text messages or paper notes in the past, a bashful flirt had to painstakingly rack their brains for something to say in order to communicate with the object of their playful desire – now they only need to grin and Snap away…

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