Katrina Sluis

A chapter from the text, ‘ACCUMULATE, AGGREGATE, DESTROY – Database Fever and the Archival Web’  

Against this backdrop, apps such as Snapchat are at the vanguard of what is being called ‘the erasable web’—a new attitude emerging from Silicon Valley that self-consciously rejects the public aggregation of personal media in favour of ephemerality, erasure and immediacy. The problem, as Snapchat’s CEO Evan Spiegel describes it, is that ‘technology companies view movies, music, and television as INFORMATION. Directors, producers, musicians, and actors view them as feelings, as expression. Not to be searched, sorted, and viewed—but EXPERIENCED’ (Spiegel 2014).

For Spiegel, Snapchat offers a radical break with the archival paradigm of Web 2.0: since each message self-destructs on viewing, it cannot be instrumentalized as mere data—it can only be experienced. Additionally, because each video, image or text has a limited life-span on Snapchat, it intensifies the moment of viewing and its affective potential. The knowledge that an image disappears mimics real life: moments come and go, like memories, or like a ghost (Snapchat’s icon). And imperfection rather than perfection can be embraced.

Or, Spiegel argues:

Traditional social media required that we live experiences in the offline world, record those experiences, and then post them online to recreate the experience and talk about it. … This traditional social media view of identity is actually quite radical: you are the sum of your published experience. Otherwise known as: pics or it didn’t happen. Or in the case of Instagram: beautiful pics or it didn’t happen AND you’re not cool.

This notion of a profile made a lot of sense in the binary experience of online and offline. It was designed to recreate who I am online so that people could interact with me even if I wasn’t logged on at that particular moment (Spiegel 2014).

With the relentless aggregation of images, videos and texts, which are publically shared and mined as your ‘profile’ there is an increasing desire to escape the archive. Snapchat offers the illusion of self-destruction, and represents a shift away from archiving yourself in real time to expressing yourself in real time. For Spiegel, the authenticity of the disappearing snap sits in direct contrast with the polished and contrived Instagram feed. Without an archive or profile to maintain, the user of Snapchat is (allegedly) free to be their ‘authentic’ self. As sociologist Nathan Jurgenson suggests, Snapchat’s photos are not made to be collected or archived, they are elusive, resisting other museal gestures of systemization and taxonomization, the modern impulse to classify life according to rubrics. By leaving the present where you found it, temporary photographs feel more like life and less like its collection (Jurgenson 2013).

This does not diminish the value of memory, as Jurgenson argues, rather Snapchat ‘inspires memory because it welcomes the possibility of forgetting’. Ten seconds or less, sharpens the focus on the message—in parallel, many live performers reject the possibility of any kind of documentation1.

In the age of surveillance and data mining, Snapchat and its peers are heralded as being about ‘taking control of your digital self’ (Gillette 2013). Snapchat has built its audience and business by exploiting a desire for the anti- archival, the ephemeral. However, there is little to no economic model to support the anti-archival web in the server farm age. Initially, Snapchat was able to grow because of its low server load, but the emergence of new features such as ‘memories’ to archive the once ephemeral content, reflect a retreat into the older archival forms of social media more amenable to marketing and tracking. While there is a strong urge for ‘forgetting’ (Mayer-Schönberger 2009) and ‘whitewalling’ (boyd 2014), for now, economics rules over authenticity and ephemerality.


1 The discourse around documentation of live performances is strong; one of the main contesters of any form of documentation is Phelan 1993