I arrived late to Snapchat.
Snapchat is a photo-sharing app that lets you send images to as many people as you want at a time, but said images can be viewed once before they’re gone forever. I haven’t got enough friends on there at the moment, and my life is not full enough of fascinating imagery, that I believe sending a picture to everyone I know is worthwhile. I just send individual ones; replies, mostly. My own face with an appropriate expression coupled with a caption. I sent my wife a video from the park on the walk home where I chased ibises through the grass. She likes ibises. I figured she’d enjoy it.
But here’s the thing, here’s the heartbreaker; I don’t know how many other people saw the message that I’m looking at. And I can’t quite deal with that.
SHARE THIS PRIVATE SPACE
Did my friend see an image and think that I alone needed to see it, that they wanted to share this private space – their vision, their gaze – with me? That it was important enough and relevant enough to our relationship that they immediately captured it and sent it over, passed like a note in a class?
Or did they see something that they thought was interesting and send it to everyone? Am I one of forty recipients? Does my response matter? Are they waiting for me to say something – is this the equivalent of not responding to a personal, heartfelt email – or does it not matter, and it’s just another thing to scroll past as I sift through the internet?
There’s no framing device, no context. No ticker at the top of the screen that says “Sent to you and 8 other people,” no indication of how important this interaction is to the sender. Whether you’re the reason for the picture or just an afterthought.
It doesn’t always matter. One woman sends me pictures of her cats. I assume that these are sent to everyone; I’m guessing she doesn’t look at a cat and think “Shit, that guy I never met who lives in Sydney is gonna love this, hold still for a second there, Mr Tibbles, I gotta video you.” That doesn’t happen.
But the pictures of quiet drinks in pubs, of passages from books, of walks to work, of lunches; are those meant for me? Or am I just another recipient? Is this a performance, or a conversation?
IT IS HARD TO TALK TO PEOPLE
I am not good at being emotionally honest with people. That’s fine. I do okay. I have problems fathoming why people would want to be my friend, quite often. (This isn’t a pity party; I just can’t interpret the signals. I have friends. It’s cool. We worked through it.)
I am endlessly thankful that I am married and I no longer have to entertain the prospect of convincing another human being that having sex with me for the first time is a great idea; it is exciting, for sure, a fun prospect, but only if it works and it so often doesn’t.
It is terrifying to make friends, or romantic partners – to be at risk of showing a little too much of yourself in a conversation that was only throwaway; to invest your limited resources of love and respect unwisely and look like a fool; to think that something was important, that someone cared, and to feel so massively unsettled and ashamed when you find out it wasn’t and they didn’t. When I talk to people – people I like, people I respect, that I don’t quite know yet – then it’s an exhausting, thrilling thing. Somewhere between a knife-fight and a game of chess and a dance, and I am terrible at all three.
For the longest time, back when I was even less mature than I am now, I communicated with other humans almost entirely through insults. I bristled and looked to see who bristled back, who gave as good as they took, who knew the correct amount of barb to apply, how close to cut, so that the insults hovered in that tantalising state between hurtful and playful. They were my friends. Or, more accurately, they were my partners in this knife/chess/dance; they knew how to perform, how much to show, the precise amount of guard to drop.
Sometimes I still do it, in the depths of red wine, and I find new friends. I lose a few, too.
KISSING YOU BACK
But – Snapchat. Snapchat pushes me back into this mindset and amps it up in all sorts of interesting ways. It is a strange semi-permeable membrane that lies between the public and the private; it has the rhythm of the private, for sure, but the extent of the public is forever unseen.
When someone posts a picture to Facebook or Twitter, we know what it means. It means: “Look at this, everyone.” Hundreds – maybe thousands, millions in some cases – of people have the opportunity to see it, to comment, to share it themselves, or to ignore it without being judged for it.
This opens up every social anxiety I had and sends them neatly to my phone in the form of beeping, buzzing notifications. What does this picture of your lunch mean? Why did you send it to me? Do you want a picture of my lunch, in return? Are you shouting to a crowd, or are you whispering in my ear? If I show you my lunch, too, is that desperate?
Is it like kissing you back, or – if you’ll pardon the crude analogy – am I just getting my cock out in the crowd at a strip club?
I am, of course, over-thinking this. It doesn’t matter. It’s a dangerous thing to think of social actions as having a value, and that said value can be watered down by the number of recipients – that kicks off all sorts of unhealthy ideas about being owed personal social interaction or romance, and about gatekeeping correct levels of social interaction. But it’s interesting, I think, to examine the way it messes with the social constructed we’ve made online, and offline; the way it blurs the lines between private and public and how distressing, how unsettling, that is to people like me. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
EDIT: Minutes after publishing, I received the following Snapchat. I reckon it was just meant for me. Still not sure how to respond.