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.