Is Snapchat the sign of a post-literary future? | John Naughton

John Naughton
Snapchat co-founders Bobby Murphy, left, and chief executive Evan Spiegel ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange as the company celebrates its flotation. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

You may have noticed a brief flurry of media interest in the stock market flotation of Snap, the company whose Snapchat app has taken the world – or at least that part of it under the age of 20 – by storm. The launch followed the usual pattern of these things: massive initial overvaluation, followed by a crash down to reality. There was also a fuss over the fact that those who bought shares in the company did not get any voting rights – an astute move by the founders to ensure that they got no hassle from Wall Street (but also raised concerns about corporate governance). And it was also noted that Snap is not based in Silicon Valley, but in the altogether more louche environs of Los Angeles.

The internet is affecting the structure of our brains and ultimately our culture in ways that we only dimly comprehend

But all these observations are mere ephemera, which may be appropriate given that the distinctive thing about Snapchat is that that’s what it specialises in: ephemera. You take a photograph with your phone, add a filter to distort it in some, er, creative way, and send it to your friends. After they’ve seen it, the image evaporates on both their phone and yours.

To the average grownup this seems weird. And it is. Just when we’d got used to the idea that digital technology never forgets – that there’s no way of being sure that the embarrassing photograph you posted to Facebook five years ago will not stay on some server somewhere for ever – here’s a digital service that runs completely counter to that. And of course Snapchat’s wild popularity must owe something to the ephemerality of its messages.

But some perceptive observers are beginning to think that there’s more to it than that. One clue can be found in something that Evan Spiegel, the chief executive of Snap, recently said to a reporter. “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day,” he said. “What they don’t realise is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.” Another clue is hiding in plain sight in the name of the app: “snap” (the term introduced by Kodak for the act of taking a photograph) plus “chat” (which has connotations of oral conversation). So, in some strange way, is Snapchat beginning to assume the qualities of an oral medium?

This is the argument advanced by an Israeli scholar, Oren Soffer, in a recent issue of the journal Social Media and Society. What makes Snapchat unique, he says, it that it “applies technology that fades visual contents as if they were spoken words fading in the air after utterance. Moreover, Snapchat’s promise to delete all messages from its database after they are viewed echoes a key characteristic of primary oral culture: that is, the inability (and in our case, the obligation not) to store knowledge. In this, Snapchat demonstrates counter-logic to the contemporary grammar of new media, which is based on information aggregation.”

As I read this I thought I heard a faint whirring noise: the sound of the late great cultural critic Neil Postman rotating in his grave. Postman was the most persuasive and insightful commentator on communications media of his time, and the most articulate proponent of the theory that societies are shaped by their dominant communications technologies. In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, for example, he argued that printing changed our conception of childhood as a protected phase in a person’s life, because in a print-based culture it took longer to get kids to the point of “communicative competence” than it did in an oral culture. (Which is why the Catholic church defined seven as the “age of reason” when people are deemed capable of taking responsibility for their sins; and why in Britain the school-leaving age was raised to 11 in 1893.) When television replaced print as the dominant medium, Postman (wickedly) argued that childhood effectively ended at age three, because kids of that age could understand popular television programmes – which explained why there were no remedial classes in TV viewing!

Postman’s flamboyant style masked a serious proposition: that our media environment shapes our culture, which is why we are now so preoccupied with how the internet is affecting the structure of our brains, attention spans, social behaviour, politics and – ultimately – our culture. Because it is affecting all of these things, in ways that we still only dimly comprehend. That’s why Snapchat is interesting. Is it a canary in this particular mine? Are we on a journey to a post-literary culture – one that has some of the characteristics of a medieval oral one? And, as one commentator has already asked, is Donald Trump “the first president of our post-literate age”? Answers on a postcard, please.

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