Disparaging the use of social media is the go-to journalistic byline, an easy topic to broach when deadlines loom and when a writer’s job depends on the number of internet hits and clicks his or her online article generates. Social media is also a convenient scapegoat for many of the changes that are affecting individuals, communities, and cultures around the world. No doubt, it’s a complex digital juggernaut that is forcing its users to manage their identity and carve out a role in the digital world in ways that often have far reaching and unforeseen consequences.
Some of the more salient criticisms directed at social media include the challenges involved in securing the privacy of the platform’s users, and addressing the controversy over the collection of user data that are sold to advertisers and collected by government agencies.
While these are significant issues that demand debate and action, it’s equally important to acknowledge some of the benefits of social media.
I’ve experienced and participated in a number of social media platforms: Myspace, Facebook, and Tumblr just to name a few. My focus; however, is my experience with Snapchat, a rising star in the world of apps that has gained wide popularity among its predominantly teenage users.
When I first heard about Snapchat, my initial response was one of skepticism, just another digital fad that will burn brightly, only to enrich its developer who, after selling the company, will pocket billions of dollars while the app eventually languishes into obscurity.
Although my hunch might very well prove true, I’ve learned that judging an app based on its potential permanence is neither an accurate nor a legitimate measure of its value. Today, apps and social media platforms define each successive generation. Its temporary nature is to be expected, not unlike the seasonal whims of fashion.
But they are also cross-generational.
When my two younger sisters introduced me to Snapchat during our annual holiday family gathering, I accepted their requests to download the app only out of respect for the moment, an occasion bringing us together as they excitedly demonstrated the app’s basic features. A few swipes to either direction and you can access the most recent videos and images received, or the main screen where you can capture and send your own images and videos on the fly. The most unique aspect of Snapchat are the “disposable social media moments” that many users find appealing. Nothing you send is permanent, as the images and videos delivered expire within a few seconds (although savvy users have learned how to circumvent this limitation).
After sending each other pictures of our contorted faces in between videos of my family’s belly-bearing pets idling in a corner or splayed across the arm of a couch, we ended the evening in good company (not always an easy feat given our family’s mercurial history). Yet, as I drove home, I’d already resigned myself to deleting the app the first chance I got. I’m not a big fan of cluttering my smartphone with needless apps, and I hadn’t yet realized its full potential.
Subsequently, my wife and I went about enjoying the rest of what was left of our vacation, to be spent recovering from multiple family trips and from the stress accumulated during the previous days leading up to the holidays. Snapchat was the last thing on my mind.
But while walking my near hairless dog Josie on a Sunday afternoon, and flush with regret for not being able to spend more time with my high school age sisters, I realized that my desire to share the surrounding beauty of my immediate environment was indeed possible using Snapchat. Instead of having to take a carefully coordinated picture, opening my messenger, uploading the image, and pressing send (oh the inhumanity of such a series of tasks), I could perform everything seamlessly within seconds.
Instantly, I was able to capture and send pictures of the houses that define the city of Long Beach, and along whose sidewalks I enjoy walking my dog. I also took short snippets of video of the coastline that distinguishes the city in which I live, narrating the attractions over the panoramic, albeit grainy, views of the ocean horizon.
My sisters were also quick to reciprocate, sending notes of appreciation for the sights and sounds I was sending them, and in turn sending me lighthearted images of themselves fulfilling the day’s routines: the tousled hair of the eldest sister lounging in bed, the blurred frame of my mother making lunch, and the braces-bearing smile of my youngest sister.
In time, these early snippets of silliness gave way to moments that were substantive. Moments such as the night when I received video of my mother helping my sisters with their homework when it was well past midnight. Or when my eldest sister, a senior in high school, sent videos of her spending time with her friends, revealing her unique mannerisms and habits of fashion and music that are seldom shared in person, especially around family. Or when my youngest sister, a sophomore in high school, sent me pictures of herself receiving physical therapy.
Although separated by distance, we were able to share experiences that were important and meaningful. And above all, experiences that were immediate.
It’s easy to long for the past, when work schedules were dictated more by the physical presence of employees, than the virtual leash of mobile technology to which we are all bound around the clock. We are hyper-connected for good, and the question shouldn’t be how to roll back time, but rather, how to best adapt and navigate through the various technologies that can be used for both good and ill.