From Social News to Social Archives?

Selective Sharing and Users’ Audience Management

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Since Snapchat turned down an acquisition offer from Facebook in early November, many people must have been waiting for new features: time-limited status updates, a chat option without saved messaging ‒ anything that would allow for ephemeral content-exchange on the leading social network. Meanwhile, the messaging application Snapchat enables users to share visual content which is automatically deleted within a specified time limit. The receiver is not able to access a file after a certain time defined by the sender. The app has since been criticised for diverse leaks and additional functions which counteract such a ‘self-destruction’. However, the popularity of such an app indicates users’ need for control over the content they share ‒ a desire which one could have expected to be incorporated by Facebook rather promptly.

Instead, one could witness somehow contrary developments. Since end of November 2013, users are once again asked to take a look at and modify their “Year in Review”: a summary of the “biggest moments on Facebook” which is viewable for all (authorised) friends. Such contradictive features of Facebook and Snapchat mark different strategies of usage appeal, and hint at a division of Social Media into Social Archives and Platforms for Ephemeral Sharing.

Facebook still banks on its status as social archive rather than emphasising its social news features. This strategy is internally consistent, but appears generally problematic when looking at this year’s rich variety of data privacy scandals. Facebook’s current profile structure builds on the idea of a lifelong timeline. Profiles start with a user’s birth and (since October 2009) can be turned into memorial profiles for deceased members. The “year in review” proceeds this idea. According to Facebook:

“Your year in review is a collection of your biggest moments on Facebook from this year, including life events, popular posts you’ve shared and posts your friends have tagged you in. […] What can people see when they go to my year in review? The individual stories contained in your year in review are visible to the same audience as they were originally shared with.“

Not only you can see your “year in review”, but also your friends (or anybody else, depending on your privacy settings) may take a look at what Facebook frames as ‘your year’. The selection of posts depends, for example, on the feedback (likes, sharing, replies) they triggered. The resulting sample can be rather odd: ranging from personal pictures to content shared on your wall. Depending on your activities on Facebook, visualising your “Year in Review” produces a very distinct result.

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Assuming that you rather hesitate to share anything yourself, ‘your year’ consists in posts and content that friends and ‘friends’ left on your wall. By deciding to be selective in what you share, you also give away control over the content which people are facing as your “year in review”.

Therewith Facebook creates incentives for contributing to one’s own profile since this maximises individual control over content shown in such retrospective archives. Facebook’s tendency to emphasise its own archival character ‒ through features such as the timeline and the year in review ‒ goes hand in hand with the representative function of users’ profiles.  Hence, posting social news on Facebook already occurs in anticipation of a representative function in the social archive they will form.

These dynamics change significantly when it comes to platforms or applications that do not necessarily emphasise publicly shared content and representation, but make promises of privacy and personal exchange of content. As pointed out by various articles, Snapchat particularly appeals  to users who want to ensure confidentiality and ephemerality of their content. It has been widely labelled as “sexting app”, but has likewise gained popularity among f.i. Wall Street bankers and traders. In any case, content is not chosen in order to act as long-term representation and semi-publicly accessible item of identity construction, but rather focuses on timely restricted exchanges between two or more selected users. In this sense, the application itself creates less pressure to select and share particular content; instead it rather anticipated a desire for sharing without public visibility. The exchanged files are not meant as elements of identity construction towards a more and more heterogeneous group of ‘friends’, but serve as self-constructing statements within rather individual relations.

What currently happens on Facebook is on one hand very much consistent with the way the social network has framed itself so far. Its profiles’ focus on representative functions comes along with continuously growing scopes of friends and thus heterogeneous audiences. On the part of publicly available content it stresses its appropriation as Social Archive, rather than personally addressing particular social circles.

It seems questionable though to what extent the shared archives that Facebook establishes undermine users’ desire for maintaining relationships with different, sometimes even contrary qualities. Despite some options for customised visibility, a timelime’s streamlined statement enforces a consistency and tenability of content which does not keep up with the variety of relationships to be maintained. By disregarding possibilities for selective sharing and controlled content exchange, it limits its own usage incentives. It is not only privacy, but also forms of mediated intimacy that users are trying to achieve. Moreover, it seems that ephemeral instead of archived content might facilitate a more regular user activity which cannot rely on the stability and accessibility of content, but adjusts to a new scarcity and limited availability.

In this context, it is remarkable that Instagram recently  published “Instagram Direct”. The direct messaging service allows users to share photos, videos and comments among specified groups. (In comparison to whatsapp, its focus is even more on an exchange of visual material.) Instagram Direct still incorporates the idea of sharing, but ‒ similarly to the Microsoft Internet Explorer Campaign earlier on this year ‒ emphasises users’ control over their audiences:

“There are, however, moments in our lives that we want to share, but that will be the most relevant only to a smaller group of people—an inside joke between friends captured on the go, a special family moment or even just one more photo of your new puppy. Instagram Direct helps you share these moments.”

It is still the idea of a Social Archive that seems to dominate the user motivations which are targeted. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom commented on this crucial difference between Snapchat and Instagram Direct during a launch event: “There is room for ephemerality, but Instagram is more focused on archiving.” In this sense, Instagram Direct steers a middle course: it seeks after a compromise by establishing Social Archives which are appropriated to different audiences a user may face. What currently happens on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are hence diverse efforts to accommodate multiple levels of identity and relationship construction which are maintained through Social Media.

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