A screenshot of WeChat's splash page, with a tiny social graph visualized.

A screenshot of WeChat’s splash page, with a tiny social graph visualized

Around this time last year, Instagram caused a flurry after attempting to change its terms of service — what the Globe and Mail‘s Russell Smith called “an apparent move to appropriate and sell every user’s photos.” Smith pondered how growing awareness of the public documentation of our private lives will play out:

I often wonder about the generation that is being raised in public like this – when they’re grown up, what attitudes to their own privacy will they have? Will they simply not know what privacy is and not care, accepting that anyone who wants to see into their living rooms at any time will be able to do so with a mouse click, or will they rebel by being far more careful than their parents ever were?

The film We Live in Public, which I haven’t seen, got a lot of attention nearly four years ago because it purported to discuss what was then a growing erosion of privacy, as we spent more and more of our lives in public online spaces. It’s hard to remember, but social networks were fairly new and novel then, and only beginning to gain traction outside college and high school users. And with that came increased attention towards how we live in public. The stereotype of Twitter — posting pictures of your lunch — kinda sorta has come true with the plethora of food and wine images posted to Instagram. This sort of public-ness is not about surveillance of our private communications; it’s about the private moments we choose to make public anyway.

Now, with all the hubbub about SnapChat turning down Facebook’s $3 billion offer, I latched onto something that Evan Spiegel, its co-founder, is noted as saying, according to the New York Times:

On stage at an industry event in September, Mr. Spiegel said that he wanted to duplicate the success of overseas chatting applications like WeChat.

Many such companies, particularly WeChat and Line, have found ways to make money from their applications through virtual goods and games. WeChat, which is based in China and operated by a company called Tencent, allows its users to subscribe to brands like Starbucks and Nike and receive messages from them. Line, a Japanese messaging app, has $10 million a month in revenue from selling stickers that users can send to each other while chatting with friends.

WeChat and Line are huge in Asia, with nearly 300 million users alone on WeChat, which started popping up in China in late 2010. What makes these apps — and others like them, including WhatsApp and Viber — effective is how they’ve transformed the common gesture of texting and turned it into a more multimedia experience. WeChat and Line, as noted above, make money through games and cute animated stickers. Viber allows you to make quick calls, and WhatsApp lets you more easily send media files and audio notes. All of them help you keep in touch with friends internationally without having to worry about international texting costs.

But what’s even more interesting about these apps is that, in addition to SnapChat, they’re designed for more one-to-one use. The point is less about gathering lots of friends and broadcasting everything you’re doing, and more about keeping small circles. And while there’s already evidence that SnapChat’s supposedly vanishing photos don’t actually go away, that, in my mind, was never really the point. The reason those photos vanish is because the moment that’s shared is meant to be private. Russell Smith’s question is being answered in this growing trend of segmenting how we spend our lives online. For public moments, we have Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other platforms, where the public-ness of our posts is understood and expected. We have WeChat, SnapChat, Path, Line, WhatsApp, Viber for everything else.

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An Xiao

Artist An Xiao (aka An Xiao Mina) photographs, films, installs, performs and tweets and has shown her work in publications and galleries internationally. Find her online at @anxiaostudio...

One reply on “Going Private: From WeChat to SnapChat”

  1. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to spend time with my niece. It was lovely. Even though she would look at her phone every now and again, I didn’t mind. I accepted that this is a part of the youth culture and wanting to share things that resonated with her. So when she introduced me to SnapChat, I was thoroughly intrigued. She was “chatting” with her girlfriend. She took a picture of us eating frozen yogurt and explained, “…the picture will go away after a few seconds. It’s not saved or anything. You just take a picture, share it, and it’s gone.”

    I started to grapple with this notion of memory and how the edges and curves of our recollections of anything are subject to a constant archive. While SnapChat fascinates me, it also makes me wonder if younger generations will ever know the feeling of longing or the gestation of an idea or thoughts over time. There is so much to keep up with in the world. Our visual culture and world grows exponentially as we are inundated with images. Even if the SnapChat photos may, technically, still exist, it’s such an interesting way to look at visual memory, disappearance, and remembrance.

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