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Snap Chatting

March 3, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Snapchat offers a fast, easy, image-driven conversation over any smartphone. This twitter-like experience allows you to add a photo, granting new dimensions to the textual content of your words. I find this mix really interesting from the standpoint of communication studies. What are the potential repercussions of a chat space like Snapchat? What type of communication is it intended for and are the users aware of different styles of communication?

For those of you unfamiliar with Snapchat, it is a phone app that allows you to snap a quick photo, and send both photo and text to a friend or group of friends. The message is entirely temporal and is expected to disappear after it has been read. The company that owns Snapchat (Snap Inc.) says, “Our products empower people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together”. sends a message that purportedly dissolves, then it is clearly not intended for use in business meetings or heart-to-hearts. They also explicitly state that it is intended for fun. This bridging of mediums does open new potentials. But it also opens up new questions.

From its beginnings, teens have been quick to capitalize on this message board for silly notes, procrastination device and also mini-journaling. One can include a saved image in the text, or you can take a new image, giving prominence to a local eatery, travel destination, artwork or whatever you're doing right now. (I have yet to see someone vacuuming, but maybe I haven't looked hard enough). It seems obvious to me that this type of dialogue should be saved for use among your relatively close and personal friends and family. However, this is not clear to all of the users. Unfortunately, there are those who have sent messages only to have the message backfire in some way. This brings up questions of legality and audience.

Since a high percentage of Snapchat users are young, it is important that they be armed with information about communication styles and technological literacy. Despite the best intentions of Snap Inc., it is not difficult to save an image from Snapchat. Also, in real life, in real face-to-face conversation, we are often painfully aware of audience. Reactions are immediate and can be embarrassing, thrilling, hilarious, frustrating or painful. Facial features and bodily gestures grant a large amount of communication in face-to-face conversation, none of which is present in a Snapchat, obviously. Also, jokes (one of the most common forms of communication in this quickchat session) can be relatively difficult to read without the physical presence of the speaker. For example, sarcasm can be wholly missed without enough content. And finally, Snapchat is really less about chatting than about an instantaneous impression, message or emotion. Though you can respond and have some “conversation” among a series, it is not intended for lengthy discussion.

The company name clearly indicates this by the inclusion of “snap” which refers not just to snapping a photo, but also to the quick and short movement of the conversation. It should also be noted that snap can have a somewhat negative connotation in terms of conversation. Check out the following meanings supplied by Merriam-Webster;s definition of “snap”:

- to utter sharp biting words : bark out irritable or peevish retorts

- to give way suddenly under emotional stress or strain

- to undergo a sudden and rapid change (as from one condition to another)

- to break suddenly : break short or in two

In the first example, a person who utters “sharp, biting words” is not in the mindframe for conversation. I wonder, does the image enhance our ability to open our mind and understand the other person's viewpoint or words? Or does the image grab more attention than the text of a particular Snapchat thus making the words more inaccessible or devalued? Either way, a sharp tone indicates the opposite of conversation. The next three examples also offer questions about the temporality of such a medium. Snap indicates sudden and rapid, which is a style of communication, but not of conversation.

While Snap Inc. focuses on the fun aspects of their technology, users rarely restrict themselves in playing with new technologies. In fact, creativity is often encouraged, and I see no reason why experimentation should not be encouraged. I do wonder, though, how Snapchat will change (if at all) conversation styles? Or, more clearly stated, I wonder if Snapchat will more clearly elucidate our various ways of conversing. More importantly, I wonder what will happen if dissolving conversation is taken as a foundation or replacement of face-to-face discussion?

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