In the mid-’80s, a German engineer named Friedhelm Hillebrand helped devise a way for cellphones to send and receive text messages. Back then, mobile bandwidth was extremely limited, which meant that the messages needed to be as lightweight as possible. The story goes that Hillebrand experimented with a variety of greetings and phrases and concluded, in very German fashion, that most things that needed saying could be done so in an economical 160 characters or fewer. “This is perfectly sufficient,” he said of his findings. Eventually the infrastructure improved so that there were no limits to how much text we could transmit at once. And by 2007, texting had surpassed voice calls as the preferred, if not default, mode of communication.
As most rapid advances in technology tend to do, this transition inspired a low-grade, intergenerational moral panic. Many feared that we would become asocial creatures, misanthropes who would rather hide behind the safety of a screen than face the intimacy of a spoken conversation. And maybe there’s some truth in that, but there’s another way of looking at it. Maybe we didn’t hate talking — just the way older phone technologies forced us to talk. Texting freed a generation from the strictures and inconvenience (and awkwardness) of phone calls, while allowing people to be more loosely and constantly connected.
I thought about this shift recently when trying to make sense of the rise of Snapchat, the latest wellspring of technosocial hand-wringing. Like texting, Snapchat flourished amid scarcity, though of an entirely different kind. We no longer live in Hillebrand’s era, when there were hard limits on how much we could say over text; but words alone can be an imperfect technology. So much of what we mean lies not just in what we say, or in the exact words we choose, but also in the light that animates our eyes (or doesn’t) when we deliver them and the sharpness (or softness) of the tone we use. Text barely captures even a fraction of that emotional depth and texture, even when we can type as much as we want. Snapchat is just the latest and most well realized example of the various ways we are regaining the layers of meaning we lost when we began digitizing so many important interactions.
Most efforts to approximate normal human behavior in software tend to be creepy or annoying. The oblong gray bubble that pops up when your conversation partner is typing (officially called the “typing awareness indicator”) is no doubt intended to be helpful, the virtual version of watching someone inhale and then part their lips to speak. But it becomes panic-inducing if it appears and then disappears — an indication that someone wrote something, then, for any number of reasons, deleted it. Similarly, “read” receipts, designed to let you know that someone opened and read your message, are perhaps best at letting you know when you’re being ignored. In a strange turn of events, texting has evolved to become almost as awkward as the phone calls it made obsolete.
In 2012, I calculated that I sent about 7,000 texts a month; now, thanks to the creeping unwieldiness of phones and the misfirings of autocorrect, I can barely manage to peck out half a sentence before I become aggravated by the effort and give up. To combat that fatigue, I’ve turned to newer ways to talk and interact with friends, primarily voice memos. These function like a highly evolved version of voice mail — there’s no expectation of a return call, or even a simultaneous conversation. Freed from that pressure, my friends and I leave one another memos about episodes of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Empire,” the themes of “Lemonade” or even just a detailed account of a date or run-in with an ex. The trend is catching on elsewhere: According to an article on Vice’s website Motherboard, voice notes have become so popular in Argentina that they’ve virtually replaced text messages altogether.
This is not to say that text is irredeemable. A significant humanization of our text interactions happened quietly in 2011, when emoji were introduced as part of an Apple iOS software update. They offered a palette of punctuation that clarified intent. Tacking on emoji like hearts, skulls, grins and bugged-out eyes to a short message made it infinitely easier to confidently project sarcasm, humor, grief and love across a medium that had been, until then, emotionally arid. If you want proof that we see ourselves in the emoji we use, consider the ever-present disputes over emoji inclusivity: Initially, the characters all had the same skin tone, and even now, the only “professional” emoji are male. And though the catalog of emoji has expanded in response to user demand, it still struggles to keep up with the multiplicity of human experiences. As a result, a new bespoke-emoji economy has begun to emerge, in apps like Bitmoji, which let people create personalized avatars to adorn their text messages. If our emoji couldn’t become us, we would become our emoji.
But messages that include little actual messaging seem to be the wave of the future, and Snapchat is leading the way. The app, which allows users to send short videos and images that disappear after a short period of time, is intimate by design, something that sets it apart from its social-media peers. Most of the “snaps” I send and receive are tightly framed, with angles that could be considered unflattering. They’re low resolution too, the images speckled with grain. Snapchat does have filters, but the dumb ones are the most fun, especially the ones that add a comically hideous effect — bloating your face into a red tomato, or distorting it into an animal mask.
If we are to believe the theories about how people want to communicate nowadays — largely through anesthetized, hypermediated and impersonal exchanges — Snapchat’s recent surge in popularity makes little sense. During the first few years of Snapchat’s existence, the only people I knew using the service (beyond journalists like me who were trying to understand it) were my youngest relatives, still in high school and college. And of course there was the attendant moral panic: When it first blew up around 2012, the press seemed to assume it would primarily be used by horny teenagers swapping nudes.
If that was ever the case, it has since expanded. Each time I check the app, I’m surprised to see who else in my network has started using the service. My circle includes every demographic, age and locale: co-workers who send snaps of their dogs, friends on strange adventures in the desert, people I talk to mostly online sending videos from their travels. The videos are rarely elaborate: just a few seconds of my favorite people’s faces on a large screen, smiling, or singing, or showing off their view, before they fade and disappear.
Its entire aesthetic flies in the face of how most people behave on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — as if we’re waiting to be plucked from obscurity by a talent agent or model scout. But Snapchat isn’t the place where you go to be pretty. It’s the place where you go to be yourself, and that is made easy thanks to the app’s inbuilt ephemerality. Away from the fave-based economies of mainstream social media, there’s less pressure to be dolled up, or funny. For all the advances in tech that let us try on various guises to play around with who we are, it seems that we just want new ways to be ourselves. As it turns out, the mundanity of our regular lives is the most captivating thing we could share with one another.
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