…but the truth certainly is not.
Preparation for my upcoming Theorizing the Web presentation on data serfdom has me reading about notions of truth and comparing those notions to how various data platforms guide users in constructing their data selves. While I have a good handle (at least, in my own mind) on how Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk create conditions favorable for the development of data serfdom, novel services/platforms like Snapchat introduce a new variable in the data self equation that, I believe, has interesting implications on both the development of the data self and the 'lived reality', or verisimilitude, the data self supposedly projects and provides. That factor is ephemerality, and it's implementation forces us to consider how 'Snaps' alter the role of truth in the social media landscape.
In the post 'Why does Snapchat Matter?', Sam Ladner addresses a central issue the picture-sharing platform obviates through its service, that being the existence persistence of photos, likes, and comments shared on the Internet. "Snapchat allows you to turn the Web back into regular conversation, shared with only those “present,” and not recorded for anyone else to hear," Ladner argues, as she frames the function, or affordance, of disappearing content as enabling a return to pre-Web discursive practices. Instead of deciding 'Should I take a picture of this?', Ladner states that Snapchat allows one to make the perfectly acceptable choice that something is of little archival value, hence the desirability of ephemerality, and that this lack of 'documentary pressure' (what Nathan Jurgenson has termed the Facebook Eye) reduces the cognitive load associated with other platforms and their existence persistence stance on shared content.
Granted, the disappearing nature of Snaps (the term used by Snapchat for the photos you take and share) certainly reduces cognitive load- but it also has additional, far-reaching effects regarding the ability of the user to engage in parresia, or truth-telling. This is something I would like to explore in greater detail below.
Another characteristic of parresia is that one does not come equipped, naturally, with the ability to use such a discourse. It has to be proven, fought over, so that the utterer of parresia is assured that others will listen to them and heed the truth they bravely proclaim. Yet, parresia is not so above reproach that it cannot be subverted, cannot be twisted to suit needs that are less than altruistic. Plato, himself, questioned how Democracy could co-exist in harmony with parresia, given that such pure truth-telling might not be accepted by the representative bodies summoned to debate the pressing issues of the polis. It is entirely possible to have bad parresia, he concludes, false truth-telling that borders on flattery.
Foucault stipulated that bad parresia contained three elements. First, it allowed anyone to speak. Ascendency, the process of jousting with others for recognition, no longer matters in those places where bad parresia reigns. While this was a necessary precondition for those who utter good parresia (one needs to be heeded, after all, for the truth to have any effect), in the converse situation ascendency is moot because anyone can speak. This leads to the second element of bad parresia, that being the situation where speakers won't give their 'true' opinion but, rather, they sustain the prevailing opinion. Foucault notes that, "the bad ascendency of anybody is achieved through conformity to what anybody may say and think." (183) The third, and final, characteristic of bad parresia extends from the conformity found in the previous characteristic; by pleasing others, the utterer of bad parresia ensures their own safety and success, thus circumventing any potential danger.
"Such is the mechanism of bad parresia, which is the elimination the of distinctive difference of truth-telling in the game of democracy." (183) Foucault states that this is the real danger of bad parresia before elaborating what Plato saw as the main consequence of democratic man lacking a logos alethes, or discourse of truth:
"In the anarchy of his desires he will want always to satisfy greater desires. He will seek to exercise power over others, power which is desirable in itself and which will give him access to the satisfaction of all his desires." (201)
While there is quite a bit more to the analysis by Foucault on the notion of parresia, (highly recommend you check-out the entire lecture series) there is enough here to begin asking questions about how parresia, or rather how bad parresia, operates on a social media platform where ephemerality is the central feature. Let's return to the analysis of Ladner, described above.
Without complicating this post with the particulars of data serfdom on non-ephemeral platforms (NEP's), like Facebook or Twitter, one essential point must be made regarding the nature of data self verisimilitude promised by these platforms; they trap users in unchanging expressions that promote stasis and formation of the ossified self, so as to make marketing easier and more accurate (even as this ossification creates asynchronicity between the data self and the lived self). Conflict arises when users question the veracity of their data selves, because we have reached the point where shareable information can be accessed and indexed to such a degree that the resulting amalgamation alienates users from the platforms they dutifully toil upon.
This is what Ladner means when she discusses the lessening of 'cognitive load' associated with NEP's, the fact that persistent existence routinely exposes users to embarrassment and even greater liability. There is no longer the question of 'should I document this?' or 'what is the best moment to document?', questions inherent to actualization of the 'Facebook Eye', but rather a general freeing of the self to engage in frivolity, to rest assured that the ridiculous (or not) Snap just sent won't be around for others to critique tomorrow, or the whole sequencing of tomorrows that will inevitably follow. The benefits are immediate for Ladner:
"Snapchat came and took out the garbage that you put in a particular pile. You don't even have to think of that pile. It is simply gone. How liberating!"
Yet, I ask, what are the implications? It's fine that Ladner sees Snapchat, and ephemerality in general, as a sort of automated trash pickup service, but this begs the question: if you liken it to garbage, what does that say about the content and its purpose to begin with? Granted- this is the larger point Ladner is trying to make. But I also think this garbage analogy hints at a general condition on the type of information ephemerality will promote.
The genius of Snapchat, and ephemerality in general, is that it frees the lived self from the constraints of the data self. Whereas NEP's continually have users conflate the truth of their utterances encoded in likes and retweets to that of their lived reality, producing disruptive asynchronicity, platforms that embrace ephemerality tell users, "Don't worry about the conflation of your data and yourself- the data will disappear, leaving only your true self behind." However, while ephemeral platforms may claim to solve the data self conundrum, in reality they provide only a more ameliorating experience for the user to engage in bad parresia.
As it stands now, most uses of social media don't promote the practice of parresia- they promote forms of communication that claim legitimacy in the name of parresia. In actuality, social media promotes bad parresia because marketers, who pay the bills for many social platforms, demand flattery over truth. But the linkage of legitimacy to what parresia stands for, the unabashed, total belief in what someone is uttering, is what all social media platforms will claim to exercise. For NEP's, this linkage comes from their claim that the data self is symphonic with the lived self, that the data will reveal a truth of your existence that was once completely unknown. Ephemeral platforms point out the flaw in this reasoning, as persistence existence of data will continually pose as a liability, and suggest that the way to actual parresia is through elimination of the data itself.
Thus, when Ladner claims that Snapchat allows users to "turn the Web back into regular conversation" one can see the sort of validity these ephemeral platforms derive from linking themselves to notions of parresia. But I would counter Ladner here, and suggest that ephemeral platforms only feel like a more authentic, digital version of ourselves because they present a novel way for us to engage in bad parresia. Snapchat doesn't encourage one to send photos of value, only photos of frivolous value. There is no ascendency involved with Snapchat. Sure, you might be selective in who you decide to send or receive Snaps- but there is no preferring one over another, no quality meaningfully marking one as anything more than an equal of another. It's all so frivolous, so YOLO, that anybody can speak, anybody can take a snap and send it to anyone without a care for anything more.
Of course this ephemerality, while very liberating in practice, also means that there are no consequences tied to the data shared. This is how Snapchat directly contributes to the formation of bad parresia. The data you send melts away after mere seconds, leaving only a vague notion that any data was shared at all. Recall what Foucault, quoted above, said was one of the central characteristics of parresia, that is "a truth-telling, an irruptive truth-telling which creates a fracture and opens up the risk; a possibility, a field of dangers, or at any rate, an undefined eventuality." Ephemerality eliminates this fracture, or at least seals it far, far quicker than NEP's. There is no danger, no undefined eventuality in sending a Snap.
Recipients of Snaps may, if they are quick enough, take a screenshot, but here Snapchat upholds its ephemeral teleology and informs you that your picture has been kidnapped from the palace of forgetting and locked away in the dungeon of existence persistence. This reinforces Snapchat's linkage to notions of good parresia, as the ephemeral platform tells those whose Snap's have been captured, "There is a traitor in your midst, one who would violate the true expression of yourself in order to possess a shadowy, asynchronous piece of your data self." And since ephemeral platforms hold claims to veridiction through opposition to the data selves created by NEP's, this 'informer' aspect of having Snap's captured completes the false-loop of presumed good parresia.
As an evolving feature, we will have to wait and see how Snapchat (and the inevitable emergence of cloned services) continues to play with notions of verisimilitude tied to the larger issue of truth-telling. Given that ephemeral data has a low value to marketers, one wonders how Snapchat will monetize its service given the demands of profitability in the marketplace. It's not entirely out of the question that Snapchat is using ephemerality to lure in droves of potential data serfs, and once the demesne has reached suitable size who knows what gates will be shut and what data will take on a less than ephemeral existence. Regardless, ephemerality represents a new take on the social media question. We should be careful to not overlook its impact on how we see social media integrated into the notion of parresia.