Technology has a way of making time simultaneously important and baffling. Communication technologies from speaking to writing to recording sound and sight disrupt temporality, mixing the past, present, and future in unpredictable new ways. This chaotic atemporality is part social media’s interest–or at least it’s what interests me. Specifically, the fact that the social media built so far has a particular, and peculiar, orientation to time: an assumed inevitability of recording most everything forever.
Most of our personal understandings of, as well as research on, social media presume that what we do online can be and likely is permanent. The photo posted today will be around tomorrow. Sometimes that is a satisfying thought: that we can one day look fondly upon this moment. Sometimes it’s the horrifying notion that something we are doing now will come back to bite us later. While there is some research on the deletion of social media content–for instance danah boyd’s terrific work on “white-walling” where users periodically delete their content–most of our understandings of social media assume content is mostly permanent. For instance, Rob Horning rightly points out, that the “self” is increasingly intertwined with data and social media documentation, arguing,
ubiquitous surveillance will be the fundamental fact about subjectivity from here on out. There will no sense of self that doesn’t take into account how the self has been or will be recorded, how that self will turn up as an artifact of online searches
“Recorded” and “artifact” are certainly appropriate terms now, with the former assuming the latter. But does recording always need to be seen as an inevitable future artifact? Do we need to continue to assume that social media content needs to be forever? I’m curious as to what happens to identity if social media emphasizes less enduring recordings and instead something more temporary. It would be identity less concerned with itself as a constant “artifact”, a less nostalgic understanding of the present as a potential future past and instead an identity a bit more of the present, for the present.
Simply, what if we rethought the whole idea of the assumed permanence of social media? What if social media, in all its varieties, was differently oriented to time by promoting temporariness by design? What would the various social media sites look like if ephemerality was the default and permanence, at most, an option?
It’s easy to underestimate the significance of injecting more ephemerality into social media. But to make social media more temporary fundamentally alters our relationships to online visibility, to data privacy, content ownership, the “right to forget.” It alters the functioning of social stigma, shame, and identity itself.
Beyond the ‘right to forget’, what about the possible erosion of the obligation to remember?
We think about how the high school student’s name will appear in search results years down the road, or how presidential candidates will run against their own online profiles of past. Indeed, that common declaration, “I’m so glad I didn’t have social media when I was young!” is ultimately a way of asserting how big a problem our present will be when excavated in the future. The message is often that we should be ashamed about what we are doing, that what we are creating now will bring stigma in the future.
It is deeply important to recognize the harm that permanent media can bring–and that this harm is not evenly distributed. Those with non-normative identities or who are otherwise socially vulnerable have much more at stake being more likely to encounter the potential damages past data can cause by way of shaming and stigma. When social media companies make privacy mistakes it is often folks who are not straight, white, and male who pay the biggest price. This is why movements like the right to be forgotten are so crucial.
There is, however, a tension here: we should be careful not to couch the possible benefits of temporary social media as promoting hiding from your past in shame. As I’ve argued before,
When we applaud not having records of our own embarrassing past, a document of how we’ve changed over time as individuals, we are equally celebrating the cultural norm that expects perfection, normalization, and unchanging behavior. What if more people wore past identities more proudly? We could erode the norm of identity consistency, a norm no one lives up to anyways, and embrace change and growth for its own sake. Perhaps the popularity of social media will force more people to confront the reality that identity isn’t and can’t be flawlessly consistent.
Framing data deletion as about hiding from one’s past might actually further the stigma of a little digital dirt, that being human and changing is something to be ashamed of. A healthier attitude towards our documented pasts would be to embrace how different we were before, even if there are significant mistakes. Change could be seen as not a flaw but a positive, as evidence of growth; an identity feature rather than a flaw.
I’d like to suggest a second a way of understanding temporary social media, not as hiding from the past but as embracing the present. I began writing about Snapchat in an essay for The New Inquiry this past February arguing that one thing ephemeral media like Snapchat does is change our everyday vision from using social media to focus on a series of future pasts to embracing the present for its own sake. While documenting our lives isn’t new, the types and degree is: social media, smartphones, and the rest of our proliferating technologies of documentation encourage people to view the world in the present as a potential photo, GIF, video, status update, check-in to be archived. And, importantly, social media in particular provides an audience for our ephemera, which is partly responsible for our willingness to document ourselves and others so thoroughly.
This culture of documentation in the age of social media has emerged as particularly nostalgic. Because what we do on social media is so often quite permanent, this ‘documentary vision’ tends to be a sentimental gaze. The faux-vintage photo filters that have made recent digital snapshots look as if they were aged by time are a terrific example of the ‘nostalgia for the present’ that happens when almost any moment can be so perfectly remembered. Permanent social media encourages an understanding of the present as documentable. Conversely, temporary social media is anti-nostalgia, letting the present be good enough right where it is.
Because of this, temporary social media has a complicated relationship with memory. Part of the appeal of permanent social media is being able to look back and remember so much of our lives. But the logic that the more we save the more we remember might break down at some level of hyper-documentation, perhaps remembering things less if they are perfectly recorded. By offloading memories and some of the work of remembering to databases, we don’t really need to remember that vacation because it’s been so thoroughly stored in expanding digital photo albums; archives so numerous that they’ve become increasingly trivial to the point that you may rarely check back in on them at all. Alternatively, not recording something for posterity can mean remembering more. For example, the Snapchat countdown timer demands an urgency of attention; when you look fast, you look hard. The image might not be perfectly remembered but the story it tells and how you feel in that moment become most salient. Permanent social media fixates on the details of a photo, whereas temporary social media fixates on what it meant and what it moved within you.
In this way, temporary social media might also be an antithesis to social media triviality. Typically, to document something was to declare its worthiness of attention; but when documentation expands so exponentially, as is occurring today, the importance lessens. In the near future the near past will be less scarce because the current present is so abundant. Logging into social streams today often feels like a bazaar of banality, the everyday ephemera that populates these sites has deeply eroded any essential link between “document” and “importance”. When photographs were scarcer, photographic documentation inferred some level of importance whereas today the sight of someone photographing their burrito is a joke. The abundance of photographic documentation has created its own inverse: not photographing a moment often conveys importance, for instance, not snapping a picture of your food can demonstrate respect for the establishment and your company. In the age of hyper documentation, the photograph specifically and documentation in general are becoming less about importance and more about banality. Temporary social media creates some much needed scarcity, interrupting the cycle of documentary accumulation by not allowing them to amass. We’ve been hoarders of the evidence of our own lives; there is no important archeology when everything is saved.
Am I fetishizing the ephemeral, the present, the current moment? To a degree, yes. Social media is young, and I hope it grows out of this assumed permanence of our data. A corrective, an injection of ephemerality, is badly needed and overdue. The present doesn’t always need to be owned, held still and fixed; sometimes it might be best left alone to simply be what it is, letting more moments pass not undocumented and unshared, but just without enforced documentary boxes and categories with corresponding metrics filed away in growing databases. Instead, temporary social media treats the present as less like something that aspires to be curated into a museum but as something that can be unknown, unclassified, not put to work.
None of this is to say we should give up on more enduring documentation. Temporary social media does not really oppose durable social media. As I admit above, many of us cherish artifacts from the past. There is an appeal to a timeline of important life-events. But permanence shouldn’t be the standard, and perhaps not even the default. Let’s better consider time as a variable in a complex social media ecology where things aren’t so often shared forever. Yes, many existing sites have some deletion capabilities on their platforms, but what if more social media has ephemerality built in from the ground up?
These are the sorts of questions and issues I want to work on and encourage others to think more about. The Web doesn’t mean the end of forgetting; indeed, it has demanded it.
Nathan Jurgenson, Researcher