Earlier this month, the hugely popular photo-sharing app Instagram unveiled its latest in-app feature: Stories. If you’re one of Instagram’s half-billion users, you can now upload photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours. As the official statement explains, Stories “lets you share all the moments of your day, not just the ones you want to keep on your profile.”
Wait, isn’t this just Snapchat?
For those of us who need a bit of a catch-up, Snapchat is a rival photo-messaging app that’s been around for nearly as long as Instagram (2010 for Instagram, 2011 for Snapchat). Though always slightly in the shadow of its older cousin, Snapchat has carved out a niche among younger teens due to its unique feature: All photos and videos (“Snaps”) remain on the receivers’ device for a limited amount of time (e.g., 10 seconds, or a day; it depends). In other words, you can snap, send, and—just like that—they’re gone. As one early Snapchat slogan put it, “Delete is our default.”
Authentic Spaces that Forget
Even if you’ve never heard of Snapchat, it doesn’t take long to see why it’s blossomed. Users praise the app’s authenticity, its intimacy, and the way that it encourages friends to see a side of them they don’t normally show—all in the knowledge it won’t be on permanent record.
Now compare that to Instagram (until now), or even Facebook, where we upload filtered images that gather on our profiles. It’s a different way of doing social media. Whereas Instagram has often been caricatured as a “highlight reel,” Snapchat is more akin to “backstage footage.” It’s rough, unedited, in-the-moment.
All of this makes Instagram’s move to incorporate a temporary element fairly significant. Of course, with Snapchat being dominated by a younger demographic, there’s a sense in which Instagram is simply trying to engage the demands of the younger market—while simultaneously imitating and muscling out the current favorite.
Again, it’s worth pondering why Snapchat is so popular in the first place. In a perceptive piece for The New Yorker, Casey Johnston suggests the addition of Instagram’s Stories feature is more than just “a shameless grab for one of Snapchat’s core features.” It’s a response to an increasingly common demand: “On an Internet that always remembers, we are fighting for places we can go to forget.” After all, who would deny there are some moments that really don’t need to be recorded forever? The goofy selfie and the visual inside joke can be shared in the knowledge that in a few seconds they’ll be gone, just as they’d be in a face-to-face conversation.
But maybe this shift also marks discontentment with a social media model that Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel has criticized as “pics or it didn’t happen.” The fig leaves of Instagram’s famous filters and architected profiles might yield a passing satisfaction, but it seems they still leave us aching for authenticity. Maybe we know deep down this isn’t who we really are? When the Australian model Essena O’Neill stepped back from Instagram in November 2015, she denounced its culture of “social approval, social status, and social expectations.” More poignantly, she acknowledged its personal effect: “I wasn’t loved, for how can anyone love a facade?”
The problem with filters and profiles is we never know reality, which means we’re never really known.
On one level, it’s understandable why traditional social media categories of permanence would eventually make space for temporariness. And yet it’s also worth reflecting on how this desire for in-the-moment authenticity shapes how we view our own identities.
Social media theorist and Snapchat researcher Nathan Jurgenson has written at length on the importance of “temporary social media.” He notes both Instagram and Facebook’s tendency to tether our sense of identity to how we’ve recorded ourselves online; Snapchat, on the other hand, offers an intentional shift to emphasize “who we are today, right now.” This means our identity has “room for growth, emotional risk, expression, mistakes—room for you.”
This “temporariness by design” has potential to be about far more than how long our images stay on someone’s screen. According to Jurgenson, it’s a means to “validate identity change and growth” by confronting the “myth of identity consistency.” Though this may seem a few steps removed from sending disappearing selfies, it’s indicative of a worldview that shapes and drives the theory behind an app like Snapchat.
In fact, this philosophy of personhood is entirely in keeping with Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of late-modern culture as encouraging “liquid identities.” To quote Jurgenson again, a person is “a non-linear process of becoming, rife with starts and stops and wrong turns.” In conversation with this line of thinking, Tim Keller has noted their assumption that only the “self-actualization of the self” is absolute. Put simply, this is a narrative of unfettered freedom, with the great enemy being anything that stands in the way of the self being whomever or whatever it wishes to be.
Fully Known, Fully Loved
One Snapchat ad featured Guards’ song “Silver Lining,” with its repeated lyric: “I wanna live forever, I don’t care.” Given how much Snapchat emphasizes its “temporariness by design,” the mantra might seem a bit ironic. Yet this worldview does seek to offer the promise of an “eternal present”—where we escape who we were and who we’ve been by recreating ourselves in an endless and fluid stream of identities.
For all our talk of authenticity, conceiving of ourselves as boundless reveals how little we actually know about ourselves.
Perhaps, then, we can look to Christianity for a bit of insight. After all, while we’re all growing and changing and rebranding ourselves, it’s Christians who believe in creation by a personal Creator. This means, among other things, there are inescapable givens concerning who we are and who we’ve been created to be. We confess that sin has turned us into fractured people who live in a fractured world, but the hope of Christianity is that a return to wholeness remains possible. We can be truly known, with no need to conceal or move on from whatever ugly realities lie in our hearts and pasts.
In her New Yorker piece, Johnston suggests Instagram’s Stories represents a general human desire for a place where we can “fully” be ourselves. But as Christians, we know it’s only by finding our place in the ultimate story that we have an ending that truly satisfies.