Tuesday, July 9, 2013

New Trends in Consumer Technology: Snapchat

No Comment

Without a CNN Headline News or other of the same ilk offered by my satellite TV provider, I often turn to Euronews for a quick overview of major news stories.  It does the job for the most part, but I often get infuriated by a regular feature they've dubbed 'No Comment,' which involves showing striking video footage without any off-screen commentary.  In other words, don't ask us, you figure it out. 

Here's how Euronews explains No Comment:

Well, that's peachy.  It's good to respect the intelligence of your audience, but images are not 'facts.'  Images can deceive, especially when details and context are eliminated.  Essentially, the viewer is left with the awareness, for example, that there was a pretty bad catastrophe someplace in the world - an out-of-control fire, a devastating environmental disaster, a street riot, or some other tragedy - without any of the details that journalists are supposed to be paid and trained to tell us (who, what, why, where, etc.). Imagine this conversation:  Honey, what's that you're watching?  Uhm, a story about a really bad fire somewhere, caused by who knows what, with any number of victims - your guess is as good as mine.

On second thought, forget about that conversation.  After all, who needs conversation when all you need to do is use your Snapchat app to take a temporary photo of the screen, which you can then send to whomever it is who may have phoned or texted you asking what you're watching on TV.  In the Euronews case, the photo meta-communicates the answer with a 'no comment' about a 'no comment.'  However surreal this may sound, this scenario is not only plausible, it already exists.  Snapchat, the pioneer iPhone and Android app in temporary image communication, has been around for a while now and is already enormously popular.  Snapchat allows a person to take a photo, send the image to a designated recipient, and control how long it is visible by the person who receives it, up to 10 seconds. After that, the picture disappears and can’t be seen again.  Talk about the ephemeral essence of photography.  On second thought, don't - no, don't speak - just snap and send.  What a misnomer, Snapchat, because in essence, its more appropriate name is Snapchatless.

That's the problem with Twitter . . . too chatty.  140 characters, waaay too many.  In fact, images sent by mobile phones continue to rise as text messages continue to fall.  CTIA, the trade association for the wireless industry reported that in the US in 2012, 2.19 trillion text messages had been sent and received - 5% less than the preceding year.  By contrast, MMS (multimedia) messages including photos and videos rose by 41% in 2012 to 74.5 billion.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the shift from verbal communication to visual nods.  Visual messaging breaks down language barriers, if not cultural differences in message interpretation.  True, if I take a photo of a pizza I am eating and Snapchat it, I doubt it will make a difference if I am sharing it with an Italian or an Aleut, but in other cases the image may be less straightforward.  What bothers me most about conversing by photo is a growing aversion to true verbal dialogue, debate, conversation.  Call me old-fashioned, but I love words.  On the other hand, as a student of photography, I remember fondly sitting in the classroom of Italian art historian James A. Fasinelli, the person most responsible for turning me on to cinema and photography.  Fasinelli would take an entire class session discussing the narrative messages conveyed by a single frame of a film like Juliet of the Spirits or Citizen Kane.  We are a visual species and it is likely more natural for people to read an image than to read and understand text.  Or maybe I'm only thinking about those apparently vacant Snapchat models like the ones you see at the top of this post.

Nonetheless, a new reality, according to Harvard photography professor Robin Kelsey, is that 'this is a watershed time where we are moving away from photography as a way of recording and storing a past moment' and are instead 'turning photography into a communication medium.'  But who is to say that these two kinds of photography can't coexist?  In the meantime, visual conversing just keeps getting bigger.  Over 300 million images are shared daily on Facebook (that's 100 billion photos per year), and WhatsApp (a messaging platform where people can share photos, videos, or audio notes), Vine (Twitter's 60-second video-sharing app), Flickr, Instagram
and Snapchat are thriving.  Just don't tell anyone about it.

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