Geek Mythology: Apps such as Snapchat show it's the medium that's the message

 

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The Independent Tech

What are teenagers getting up to when they're online? How do we tap into their mysterious whims? These are questions that consume many technology firms, with preposterous amounts of money being spent trying to work it out, and endless speculative paragraphs being written by people trying to guess what they're spending their money on.

Our preoccupation with Snapchat – the picture messaging app that carries some 700 million snaps to and fro every day, largely between teens – is a good example. When it was launched, its unique selling point was the in-built auto-destruct system that vaporised the picture messages a few seconds after being sent, leaving barely any electronic trail.

Any adult looking for something to say about this would identify its potential appeal to anyone with a predisposition to "sexting"; people could now send unflatteringly-lit nude shots without worrying that they're going to be widely circulated and lead to their family being ostracised from the local Presbyterian community.

As a result, Snapchat has been saddled with that label, along with the assumption that sexting is its main purpose for those teenagers using it. A few days ago Snapchat implemented a big update to its app, and once again the main focus seemed to be upon on the various ways in which this could facilitate rude exchanges between impressionable young adults.

Previously, Snapchatting was about taking a picture or filming a 10-second video clip, adding a short caption, deciding how long it should be visible for and sending it to one or more recipients. Now Snapchat has added text chat and live video calling, and commentators are beside themselves, imagining the content of said messages and the explicit nature of the video calls – as if it wasn't already possible to have intimate exchanges using dozens of other apps. The promotional video for the Snapchat update features a clip of a guy playing with a puppy, and another of a proud dad watching his son play baseball, and you could almost hear cynical viewers muttering "Yeah, and where's all the rude stuff?"

Snapchat has become known as the app for pervs, but it isn't, not really. Anyone who has ever dipped their toe into the world of Snapchat will know that the designers could have geared it far more towards sexting – not least by removing the "Best Friends" feature that publicly displays the people you have the most exchanges with.

Isn't it possible that Snapchat just hit upon a fairly benign idea of ephemeral communication which happened to strike a chord with a particular demographic, and all the associated innuendo is something that's been heaped upon it by the media and the general public? I don't remember people in the 1970s nudging and winking at anyone who owned a Polaroid camera.

Teenagers use Snapchat. We know this. One teacher from Kansas tweeted a few days ago that "in 16 years of teaching I can't think of anything that has ever disrupted my lesson more that today's Snapchat update". But on Twitter, those young people were evidently far more exercised over the change in layout – typical of any social media update – than the facilitation of live broadcast of genitalia. Snapchat is just a medium; we use it in the way we want.

One can use the cathedral town of Ely for historical sightseeing, and also consensual acts of deviant sexual behaviour. No one ever seems to mention the latter, for some reason.

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