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Snapchat for activists — a new 4chan?

Where is the activist? (Facebook/Snapchat)

Where is the activist? (Facebook/Snapchat)

Does a social media update really have to be for forever? Foreva, eva?

Not any more, thanks to Snapchat, which apparently all the kids are using. The New York Times decrees:

Because images sent through the application self-destruct seconds after they are opened, Snapchat is being embraced as an antidote to a world where nearly every feeling, celebration and life moment is captured to be shared, logged, liked, commented on, stored, searched and sold. For people who don’t want to worry about unflattering pictures or embarrassing status updates coming back to haunt them, the app’s appeal seems obvious.

Many young people are growing tired of the polished profiles and the advertising come-ons of Facebook, recent surveys have shown. Moreover, young Facebook users are becoming acutely aware of the permanence of the content shared through the Web — and its repercussions later in life. As perceptions of social media change, other start-ups, including Wickr and Vidburn and Facebook’s own Poke, have recently released messaging and video products that self-destruct after a set period of time.

“It became clear how awful social media is,” said one of Snapchat’s founders, Evan Spiegel, 22. “There is real value in sharing moments that don’t live forever.”

The Times article discusses some of the service’s sexier uses:

But Mr. Spiegel and his co-founder, Bobby Murphy, 24, say Snapchat is gaining traction for more than R-rated exchanges. Mr. Murphy describes the service “a digital version of passing notes in class.”

“You can’t build a business off sexting,” said Mr. Spiegel, using the term for sending racy pictures via text message chats. “It’s such a specific-use case. This is about much more than that.”

After reading the Times piece, WNV sometime contributor Quince Mountain (whose students at a big state university are apparently all using Snapchat) rightly wondered to me about why it doesn’t discuss Snapchat’s potential for activists. As the recent Malcolm Harris/Twitter case shows, there are dangers in posting updates about one’s activism to a corporate social media service that retains all of its records. (To solve the opposite problem — that of preserving activist photos taken on a cell phone — check out GandhiCam.)

In the annals of online-dom, Snapchat most closely resembles 4chan, the infamous bulletin-board network whose distinguishing feature is that its posts eventually disappear. The ultra-anonymity that this fosters ultimately gave rise to the phenomenon of Anonymous. As anthropologist Gabriella Coleman writes:

The seemingly paradoxical nature of Anonymous has much to do with its origins on 4chan, which has become immensely popular, iconic, and opprobrious since it launched in 2003. 4chan is an image board composed of fifty-one topic-based forums ranging from anime to health and fitness, and is widely perceived to be one of the most offensive quarters of the Internet. The “random” forum, /b/, teems with pornography, racial slurs, and humor derived from defilement. Participants communicate in a language that seems to have reduced English to a bevy of vicious epithets, sneers, and text-message abbreviations. This may be shocking to outsiders, but for insiders it is the normal state of affairs, and one of 4chan’s defining and most endearing qualities.

Over time, the gross 4chan culture evolved into the roving political activism that Anonymous has more recently come to embody, even while internally those who get too far into do-gooding risk being tarred as “moralfags.”

What surprising, subversive activism will emerge from the Snapchat sexters?