Great Essays on Vine and Snapchat

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Two seemingly trivial services are a lot more interesting if we take them too seriously.

Vine and Snapchat are the latest poster children for frivolous technology! Six-second looping videos and pictures that disappear -- what kind of silliness is that? 

It's because of the widespread assumption that these technologies are not worth taking seriously that I want to call your attention to two great essays about them. Investigating the seemingly trivial can lead down interesting paths.

The first essay deals with Vine and what visual loops mean. Steeped in history, the piece is by Chris Baraniuk and appears on The Machine Starts:

That the visual loops enabled by computer technology are always, in my opinion, disturbing, is perhaps best explained by noting a diametrical clash of ideals in human culture. The broken record, the Groundhog Day effect, the punishments of Hades which involved endless repetition, all of these things, as the term "wheel of the devil" indicates, signify disruption through relentless order. The complete absence of teleology and catharsis within the loop destroys our sense of self, our idea of progress, our intention to accomplish anything.

The loop is certainly demonic, for it is a dance of fire, it is uncompromising and incessant - like a recurring nightmare or the sound of knocking on the door at Macbeth's castle. From criticising media coverage of 9/11 (in this example of a contemporary zoetrope) to mocking celebrities, the loop has announced itself as a powerful way of undermining the world as it wishes to be seen, of amplifying absurdity and overturning normal.

The second essay comes to us from Jeremy Antley and concerns Snapchat. Antley weighs what ephemerality does to the relationship between what he calls "the data self" and "the lived self," with reference to Foucault's concept of parresia, which I will not endeavor to explain here:

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.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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