Sunday, February 3, 2013

Ephemerality is a Snap...

…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.

To begin, what is parresia?  Here I am utilizing discussions crafted by Foucault for his 1982-1983 lecture series on 'The Government of Self and Others', in which he both elaborates the meaning of parresia and charts its evolution of use through antiquity and up to the modern era.  Paressia  is actually a Greek word which describes the quality of free-spokeness, although it means much more than having a glib tongue.  It denotes that the one with free-spokeness speaks the truth, even to the point where utterance of such truth means possible mortal danger to the speaker.  Foucault states that parresia 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." (63) Those who engage in parresia form truth on two levels; the statement itself is true, but the one uttering parresia thinks, judges, and considers that the truth expressed is genuinely true.  It is not rhetoric, whereby one arranges facts to persuade another to accept a position- it is an expression of pure, believed truth, which is beyond rhetoric and situated more properly in the realm of philosophy.

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.


  1. I've got a few questions:

    First, with regards to ephemerality: Isn't Snapchat, in essence, a data self that simply doesn't last very long? Is there no novel, but perhaps still hidden, perhaps still in-development, way to data-mine the hell out of this one and produce at the very least a slightly more complicated manner of marketing to people?

    Second, what do some of the more permanent photo-sharing sites, like Flickr, say by way of ... well, producing the same effect as Snapchat: A harder-to-pinpoint, perhaps even wholly deconstructed, irresolute "data self" -- because it is a visual self, an (arguably) artistic self, an (arguably) ascendancy-free self, a data-overloaded self, and a personal self, too?

    Lastly, as regards parresia: Reading your post, I was wondering how the term applies to fictional narratives -- say, writing fictional characters, acting out the role of a fictional character, etc. Can there be good parresia in fiction? There certainly is a sense of ascendancy in the public creation of characters. That is, we tend to laud certain individuals more than others in their ability to capture certain characters' quirks, behaviors, or whatever. But then we partly permit these individuals to turn back around and do a completely different self. I mean, the celebrity machine gets into this one, too: Bruce Willis, for instance, mostly only does Bruce Willis characters; Stephen King is, after all, just Stephen King.

    Yes, now I see what you mean, by way of this analogy. Something -- like an actor's career -- keeps us limited to the "data selves" we can construct, as opposed to the ones we'd imagine we freely want to. Sort of like an agent coming to you and saying that you simply don't have the face for comedy (don't have the face for facebook?), even if comedy is your favorite thing in the world to do. Of course, once you've made a name for yourself, once you're famous, the "data self" grows. Or more like your "data self" transforms into something else entirely, or it even metastasizes into a larger and harder-to-define ... well, a kind of cancer, if you look at it as a cynic, like I do.

    Maybe I'm just babbling here. At any rate, thanks for another great post.

  2. Ishai,

    Thanks for the comments.

    First- yes, I suspect that Snapchat is really just a new way of conceiving/formulating the data self. However, what makes this approach so disarming is that, on face, the data disappears even though Snapchat still collects network/phone information. That's why I question if Snapchat isn't merely using ephemerality as a means to lure users to its platform. The real question here is how does Snapchat make money? Since the only two viable models out there are 1) ad based or 2) subscription based, one has to wonder what path Snapchat will pursue. They may even come up with a novel funding scheme- and this will be an interesting development to track.

    Second, I fully believe that one of the main appeals of all data platforms (ephemeral and non-ephemeral) is that they purport to give the user insight into their lives that was not immediately apparent before. However, both platforms actually subvert this notion of possible 'parresia'- NEP's achieve this through conflation of the data self and lived self and ephemeral platforms achieve this through supposed elimination of the data self altogether. We could easily break down how Flickr uses 'parresia', (or, really bad 'parresia') and I think many of the issues I highlight above would be present there as well.

    Third, that's a great question re: fiction and good 'parresia'. In a real sense, the characters could engage in 'parresia' but the one exposed to danger is the writer. However, most writers tend to be demure when asked if their characters represent a 'truth'- which is good cover, because writers are given some sense of protection by engaging with the fictionalized format. Honestly, that's a question that could use more analysis. Will have to think on this one.

    I like that analogy of a type-cast actor. The same could be said of pre-digital conflicts between one's reputation and rumors spread regarding that reputation. I'm thinking here of the 'fastest gun in the West' type-claims, that become either patently true/false at high noon. The way rumors took on a life of their own (one good example that comes to mind is the Great Fear of 1789 in France) is very much like a cancer growth. Data platforms often present users with this idea of 'control', be it through privacy settings or 'friend' selection, but as we often see this sort of 'control' is generally an illusion.

    Thanks again for the comments- some very interesting questions here.

  3. Good post. I like your conception of the "lived self" (moment-to-moment consciousness) and "data self" (reputation as potentially constructed at any moment by algorithms, targeted searches, etc.) drifting out of sync. I wonder whether the response to that dissonance is for people to downplay the authenticity of the lived self and locate authenticity in the data self, despite the way it is subject to multiple constructions (whereas the lived self is uninterpretable, it is an ineffable affective moment, something that can't be recorded or described without making it into a data self, corrupting it with an observer effect).

    Think you are right that Snapchat offers ephemerality to support fantasy that there is no gap between these selves — an alternate coping strategy to ubiquitous surveillance, etc., than seeing oneself as having a kind of beta-testing self to be determined by social-media processing. Nothing about Snaps are inherently more authentic to any version of the self, and they don't inherently contain more "truth" than other kinds of tactical communication. If Snaps' content has "value," though, that value seems negotiated not by the platform (as with Facebook's Edgerank and the way posted info on FB persists as Big Data) but by the sender and receiver. What Snapchat does get is metadata — who commmunicates with whom, and how frequently, etc. They get the shape of the network, which may itself prove very valuable.

    1. Rob,

      I didn't give you credit in the post above, but my use of the term 'data self' was directly inspired by your writings on the subject over the past year or so. Asynchronicity is a term I've come to use more often, especially after having an opportunity to work out some of its implications through my analysis of Russian peasants and their use of rumor to challenge textual-legal claims by Tsarist authorities.

      Regarding dissonance, I think many people became attracted to non-ephemeral platforms like Facebook (or even the current craze of measuring one's physical activity via a personal monitoring device) because it promised to show you the links that "always existed" but were relatively undetectable because one could not literally sort through all the passing data. So in the beginning, I believe users really though Facebook was showing them a 'data self' that amplified the lived experience. Now that these platforms have accumulated so much data, I can see people being alienated by something like Graph Search- but they might also just accept it and see the data self as superior to what they live everyday.

      I think you're right on about ephemerality supporting a fantasy that no gap exists between the data and lived self. Now that people have been trained to understand social media platforms as collections of one-off data moments, there is something liberating to the whole Snapchat experience, the way the photos just melt away and leave no trace of their content or meaning. And while ephemerality might not be what Target, or other marketers/businesses, need to construct their social profiles of potential customers, the larger data you point out- the shape of a users network- is both still worth money and able to be used in further designs. I would even wager that Snapchat feels that its data is more 'authentic', simply because that's the experience they sell to new users.

      This is still a nascent feature, so it will be interesting to see how everything evolves.

      Thanks for the comments!