The Snapchat Story

By rbron246

Secrecy draws and marks, as it were, the boundaries of privacy—privacy being the realm that is meant to be one’s own domain, the territory of one’s undivided sovereignty, inside which one has the comprehensive and indivisible power to decide ‘what and who I am’, and from which one can launch and relaunch the campaign to have and keep one’s decisions recognized and respected. In a startling U-turn from the habits of our ancestors, however, we have lost the guts, the stamina, and above all the will to persist in the defense of such rights, those irreplaceable building blocks of individual autonomy. (28)


Recently the founders of social media app, Snapchat, turned down an offer of $3 billion from Facebook and a subsequent $4 billion from Google, meeting with fierce criticism from the tech and business worlds. People questioned this potentially foolish decision made by a couple of 20-somethings with no prior business experience, who don’t currently even control the central patent of their own technology, tied up in litigation with one of the other founders. The app itself, and its founders decision to do the unthinkable and say no to these colossal firms is an interesting case in terms of where the internet and these technologies might be headed.



In the literature surrounding changing information environments there is a reoccurring theme of a shift from the private to public—this idea of a wired society defined by a public sphere its members can not avoid. To participate in our culture means to participate in this public arena. In Liquid Surveillance, Bauman and Lyon point to an erosion of anonymity due to pervasive use of social media, cheap cell phone cameras, free photo and video web hosts, and a general shift in society’s view on what ought to be public and private. “Everything private is now done, potentially in public — and is potentially available for public consumption; and remains available for the duration, till the end of time, as the internet ‘can’t be made to forget’ once recorded on any of its innumerable servers” (22). Pointing to drone surveillance combined with the surrender of personal privacy inherent in social media use, Bauman discusses how the most remarkable feature of contemporary surveillance is the way it has somehow managed to force and cajole oppositions to work in unison. Traditional forms of panoptical surveillance (you never know when you are being watched, so should behave as if you always are) are being recast as the hope of never being alone. With social media and this shift to public living the “fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed” (23). People are ready and willing to consent to the loss of privacy in order to participate in this culture of being seen and validated.

Within this context, Snapchat takes on an interesting significance. This exchange of ephemeral content can be seen to represent a kind of fantasy of escape from this pervasive system of surveillance. Snapchat doesn’t save user data, it knows nothing about its users. Each of the millions of photos that are sent are erased from a third-party server within seconds of being received. Unlike other forms of social media that have become mandatory tools for building an essential legitimizing online identity, Snapchat is subversive and cool.

Bauman and Lyon argue that in a society that has been reshaped in the likeness of the marketplace, its members are simultaneously promoters of commodities and the commodities they promote. “The test they need to pass in order to be admitted to the social prizes they covet demands them to recast themselves as commodities: that is as products capable of drawing attention, and attracting demand and customers” (32). These comments take on a further significance combined with Robert McChesney’s claim that “personal communication, mass media, and market information have been subsumed within the new order so that distinctions are passé” (3). Within this environment in which traditional boundaries between the private and public, personal and commercial are broken down, the internet becomes a space for a kind of constant self-curation, in which you are ever aware of the persona your actions online create. Snapchat represents an escape from this anxiety of accountability, in which its users can enjoy brief moments of supposed freedom. Its founders’ decision to remain independent seems to align with this image. In addition it brings to mind a fantasy about competition being a click away, that giants like “Microsoft and Google…are in mortal fear for their very survival if someone were to develop a better algorithm in her garage” (136).

Of course, as McChesney points out in Digital Disconnnect, these huge firms are much more than an algorithm and a stack of patents. While cloud computing represents a brilliant way to make the internet more efficient and less expensive, it is really in the hands of a few giant firms. Google’s enormous server farms serve as an example of this domination. And where does Snapchat store its infrastructure and unopened snaps? Google’s cloud computing service, App Engine. Even if the company were to remain independent, the answer to the question of how to generate profit might come from further dependence on these internet giants. Snapchat can’t offer advertisers any user-generated content to target, which is the way social media apps turn a profit. An article in Business Insider provides one simple and brilliant possible solution: simply connect users’ accounts to Facebook or Twitter and advertisers can target users in Snapchat based on that data. All Snapchat would need to do is sync its application programming interface with these other sites. It is yet to be seen in what direction Snapchat will go or if they will survive, but the recent news surrounding the app is certainly interesting and relevant in light of this ongoing discussion.


Bauman, Zygmunt and David Lyon. (2013) Liquid Surveillance: A conversation. Cambridge: Polity Press.

McChesney, Robert W. (2013) Digital Disconnnect: How capitalism is turning the internet against democracy. New York: The New Press.–3-billion-for-snapchat-010309114.html

Issues of Responsibility and Opportunity in Digital Archiving

By rbron246

Thinking a great deal lately about the concept of the archive and specifically digital archiving, I recently spent a morning in the Condé Nast Research Library and was interested to see how/where these issues might be at play. In conversation, the senior librarian informed me that the library operates separately from the archive and described the difference as such: the archive serves as the center for preservation while the library provides access to information. While this sounds like a simple and practical divide, the idea was further complicated when I asked about articles published only online. Who handles the preservation of these articles that must make up a huge contribution to the collection of these media brands? She smiled somewhat ruefully and said she wasn’t sure. Not only did the library have no involvement with this process but the librarian actually said she was too apprehensive to even ask questions. With only three librarians, and one other part-time staff member, she said they didn’t have the resources to tackle that issue if it was raised. I was interested in this division between the archive and library and asked some further questions about photo requests, receiving yet another vague response. The librarian informed me that they had “some photo records” and could respond to “some” requests leading me to believe that the divide between the two departments isn’t quite as strict as was originally portrayed. The interaction got me thinking about issues of responsibility in terms of digital archiving.

Condé Nast has digitized the entirety of Vogue from the very first issue, an expensive undertaking that was outsourced to a different company. Currently, a yearly subscription costs $3,250. Digitizing is expensive and time-consuming and corporations like Condé Nast must decide what paper materials to digitize while also considering how to incorporate born digital materials into their archive. As of now, it is quite unclear how that is being handled.

The archive as a physical collection and theoretical concept forms a basis for much of scholarly research and when examined brings up issues of authority, authenticity, ownership, and policy. Attempts to define these objects of study get at the very nature of the disciplines they serve. Associate head of the humanities library at MIT, Marlene Manoff names various concepts of the archive such as the “social archive, the raw archive, the imperial archive, the postcolonial archive, the popular archive, the ethnographic archive, the geographical archive, the liberal archive, archival reason, archival consciousness, archive cancer, and the poetics of the archive”—a list which speaks to the way this concept has permeated many fields (11). Derrida in his influential Archive Fever, claims that the archive produces as much as it records the event. “The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge [gage], a token of the future. To put it more trivially: what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way” (18). Within this context the structure of the archive also determines what can be archived, and history and memory are then shaped by the technical processes of “archivization”.

These technical processes have seen huge transformations with recent advances in information technology. Manoff claims that the methods for transmitting information shape the nature of the knowledge that can be produced, and points to social theorist Adrian Mackenzie’s claim that the centrality of the archive to cyberspace stems from the fact that existence in virtual culture is premised on a live connection. In Mackenzie’s phrasing, “to die is to be disconnected from access to the archives, not jacked-in or not in real time” (10). In this culture of connectedness, there is a new kind of instant archivization where the moment of production and preservation happen at once.

This situation leads to two potential opposing issues. On the one hand we are producing very vulnerable digital records at an alarming pace, however; if digital archiving efforts prove effective we could end up with a more complete historical record than ever before, an information overload.

Information consultant, Terry Kuny, commented on this situation fifteen years ago,

As we move into the electronic era of digital objects it is important to know that there are new barbarians at the gate and that we are moving into an era where much of what we know today, much of what is coded and written electronically, will be lost forever. We are, to my mind, living in the midst of digital Dark Ages; consequently, much as monks of times past, it falls to librarians and archivists to hold to the tradition which reveres history and the published heritage of our times.

Kuny places the responsibility for this future preservation work on librarians and archivists, and it seems that in terms of the opposing dilemma—information overloadthese same professionals would take center stage. Manoff points out that archival work is “about making fine discriminations to identify what is significant from a mass of data. These kinds of distinctions are also central to the work of librarians and archivists” (Manoff 19). However issues of digital preservation have far-reaching implications relevant to almost every discipline, and one of the biggest issues currently facing digital archiving is a lack of a clear path or a defined sense of responsibility as I saw at Condé Nast.

In Scarcity and Abdundance: Preserving the Past in a Digital Era, Roy Rosenzweig points to an absence of process in digital archiving. “Over centuries, a complex (and imperfect) system for preserving the past has emerged. Digitization has unsettled that system of responsibility for preservation, and an alternate system has not emerged. In the meantime cultural and historical objects are being permanently lost” (745). He discusses historians’ lack of attention to these issues, in part due to an assumption that these are “technical” problems outside of the purview of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Manoff points out that, “archival discourse has also become a way to address some of the thorny issues of disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge production and the artificial character of disciplinary boundaries” (11). The most important and difficult issues of digital preservation are social, cultural, economic, political, and legal—issues humanists should excel at. Yet this professional division between historians and archivists leads to a confusion of responsibility that seems to go beyond solely this historian/archivist split. Within the discourse surrounding archives, libraries, museums and archives are often conflated and there is confusion not only concerning the overarching questions of how and what to save but also who will be doing it. Digital documents are disrupting our traditional system of publication, dissemination, and preservation. Digitization challenges our notion of ownership, who owns the materials and thus who is responsible for their preservation. Licensed and centrally controlled digital content erodes the library’s ability and responsibility to preserve the past. Why preserve something you do not own?

Rosenzweig ends his discussion, pointing to “one of the most vexing and interesting features of the digital era…the way it unsettles traditional arrangements and forces us to ask basic questions that have been there all along” (760). Digital preservation and the challenges it presents open up an opportunity to re-think disciplinary boundaries, to potentially form greater cross-disciplinary connections, and in doing so strengthen our own field. One thing is for certain, there isn’t time to wait for a perfect solution and if seen as an opportunity for joint action, this recreation of the processes of preservation can be an exciting opportunity. Let’s not avoid asking the questions that need to be asked.


Derrida, J. & Prenowitz, E. (1995). “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” Diacritics 25(2): 13

Manoff, Marlene. “Theories Of The Archive From Across The Disciplines.”portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 1 (2004): 9-25.

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” The American Historical Review 108(3)


The Shifting Social Role of Libraries

By rbron246

In his essay written as part of a Library Science graduate program in the 1970’s, Andre Cossette responds to what he sees as a theoretical weakness in the field, developing a philosophy of librarianship in an effort to separate the nature of librarianship from its technical practices and define an ultimate purpose. Inspired by ideas of another writer in the field at that time, Jesse Shera, Cossette suggests the following definition: “Librarianship is the art and science of the acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval of written and audio-visual records with the aim of assuring a maximum of information access for the human community” (1976, p. 33).

Since the publication of Cossette’s essay, advances in information and communication technology have greatly impacted the modern notion of information and its storage and retrieval. While some librarians and library leaders may still cling to this notion of librarian as gatekeeper, in today’s world of open access to information this perception is increasingly challenged. Libraries struggle with how to use and exchange bibliographic data in an increasingly networked, linked data environment. As they become just one of many options for information access, and arguably fall behind in terms of user experience, libraries seem to be at a crossroads and in serious need of a redefinition in terms of aim, objectives and function.

In the Fall of 2010, the editors of Library Journal organized an online summit, eBooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point, where Eli Neiburger, the IT and Production Director at Ann Arbor District Library gave a talk in which he enumerated the ways in which he sees “libraries are screwed”. Stating that the traditional value of libraries has been the local copy, Neiburger goes on to describe how this notion of a copy has lost its embodied value in an information market where there is no longer a difference between transmission and duplication. To transmit a digital object is the same as to duplicate it, and in our constantly connected culture where you can download anything from anywhere, “the idea of having a local copy only makes sense to a hoarder”. He goes on to describe digital materials already being produced that libraries cannot circulate and how little sense it makes asking the modern patron with persistent internet access to wait to receive a digital object. The very idea of owning a copy of media is something that could potentially become an alien concept to future users, and this is all happening at the same time as tax payers are forced to decide what municipal services they can do without.

Out of this belief that the circulating collection itself has become outmoded, Neiburger offers a potential look at the future, by looking to the past. The original use of libraries was not to purchase commercial content for the community but to store the content of the community. He sees the future of libraries as resting on this community data—but not just data about the community; also the creations of the community. Through access to production tools, event venues, and a permanent non-commercial online space for the patron’s creative works the library becomes a platform for the community.

One great example of what Neiburger describes may be the “4Th Floor” at the Chattanooga Public Library. Their website describes the vision as such:

The 4th floor is a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts. The 14,000 sq foot space hosts equipment, expertise, programs, events, and meetings that work within this scope. While traditional library spaces support the consumption of knowledge by offering access to media, the 4th floor is unique because it supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.

Providing technology tutorials, demonstration days, field trips, art and design lectures, and access to 3D printers: the 4th floor combines art, technology, and education in its mission to help the community re-imagine ways to “incubate, educate and create”. Perhaps this type of community space represents one possible future for libraries?

What is clear is that libraries have lost their once monopolistic role as information providers and as we head into a new digitized era, the value of the local collection will continue to be challenged. We need to reposition ourselves in this shifting environment, finding ways to provide unique experiences and content if libraries and librarians hope to remain relevant. The library as a physical community space still seems to hold a great deal of value. This becomes even more crucial in our corporate driven culture in which non-commercialized public spaces are disappearing, and venues for public political interaction are few and far between.

However, libraries need to employ a greater degree of self-awareness in order to provide these open intellectual spaces. In his essay, The Myth of the Neutral Professional, Robert Jensen discusses how the ideology of political neutrality keeps librarians and other professionals from understanding the relationship between power and the professions. Pointing to the fact that the 20th century has been defined by three developments of great political importance: democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power from democracy, Jensen states that the, “liberal, pluralist, and democratic features of the system are constantly in tension with capitalism and the state” (2008, p. 89). In a democratic society, where the state does not have direct control of the institutions where intellectual work is done, the myth of the neutral professional serves as propaganda, a way to neutralize professionals who have been “given the resources that make it easy to evaluate the consequences of that distribution of power and potentially affect its distribution” (Jensen, 2008, p. 91).

As places for people to engage in politics as participants and not simply spectators disappear, the library represents one of the last remaining public spaces for people to come together and engage ideas. Jensen points to the importance of programming within this context, explaining that while programs should not advocate a single viewpoint, the choices involved will inevitably be informed by individual politics. “In all of these situations, the question isn’t whether one is neutral, but whether one is truly independent from control and allowed to pursue free and open inquiry” (Jensen, 2008, p. 95).

In seeking out this independence, the ideas of social theorist, Herbert Marcuse seem relevant. Included in the collection of essays, Critical Theory for Library and Information Sciences, Ajit Pyati of the University of Western Ontario explores how Marcuse’s theories might apply to LIS, specifically the influence of “technological rationality”. Writing during the height of the advanced industrial society, Marcuse’s idea of a form of technological dominance serving to institute new, more effective, and more pleasant forms of social control is relevant to a discussion of how discourses of information technology are being used to perpetuate capitalist logics of consumption today. Pointing to the commodification of information and the decline of the democratic public sphere, Pyati finds Marcuse’s theoretical concerns about technology relevant in terms of bringing social justice concerns to the forefront, counteracting repression, domination, and injustice as well as also pointing out the potential liberating possibilities of the technological society.

For freedom indeed depends on technological progress, on the advancement of science. But this fact easily obscures the essential precondition: in order to become vehicles of freedom, science and technology would have to change their present direction and goals; they would have to be reconstructed in accord with a new sensibility—the demands of life instincts. Then one could speak of a technology of liberation, product of a scientific imagination free to project and design the forms of a human universe without exploitation and toil. (Pyati, 2010, p. 240)

Marcuse’s words bring to mind Chattanooga and the 4th floor, as well as Neiburger’s assertion that libraries must find ways to offer unique experiences and content. Pyati states, “As a field that bridges both the academic and professional worlds, LIS is in a unique position to train public intellectuals who can speak for issues in the public interest and advocate for socially just outcomes in the information society” (2010, p. 246). Perhaps the future will see what Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood describe as a “people-oriented library service” in their essay The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries. For this type of library to exist, there must be a clear understanding of the social forces within which the library services operate in order to develop a service that is open to all and reaches out to those that have been excluded in the past. Libraries must stop operating in isolation from outside progressive forces and join with organizations such as youth groups, unions, and political organizations. “But before libraries reach that stage, they need to liberate their minds from the social, cultural and political norms of class-divided society…we will need to see the whole picture and not just the aspects we are shown” (2008, p. 125).

More than thirty years later, Cossette’s simplistic definition of librarianship no longer seems to rings true. Although the technical aspects of library work may still mirror what he described, the absolute necessity for librarians to reinvent themselves in a new cultural, technological and political landscape will force members of the profession to confront these issues whether they are ready to do so or not.



Cossette, Andre (1976). Humanism and libraries: An essay on the philosophy of librarianship. Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

Durrani, Shiraz, & Smallwood, Elizabeth. (2008). The professional is political: redefining the social role of public libraries. In Alison Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from progressive librarian (119-140). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

Eli Neiburger (2010, September 29). Libraries at the tipping point: how ebooks impact libraries. Retrieved from

Jensen, Robert. (2008). The myth of the neutral professional. In Alison Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from progressive librarian (89-96). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

Pyati, Ajit. (2010). Herbert Marcuse: liberation, utopia, and revolution. In Gloria J. Leckie & Lisa M. Given & John E. Buschman (Eds.), Critical Theory for Library and Information Science (236-247). Denver, CO: Libraries Unlimited.


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