For the Moment

To be ephemeral isn’t to disappear; it’s to preserve communities without turning them into data

Commentators have long treated social media as though it were a slowly unfolding zombie film: The platforms swell with undead content that can reanimate just when you thought it was safely buried. To a degree, this is true: You may not be able to get a date, apply for school, or cross national borders without someone (or some institution) checking up on your social media profiles. Our unpaid labor of amateur media production marks us as future risks or valuable targets.

The sense that documenting our thoughts and activities on social media is risky has affected the way we communicate digitally. Ad hoc strategies of risk management include posting less, careful profile pruning (also known as “whitewalling”), the obfuscation of wrong or misleading information (as Helen Nissenbaum and Finn Brunton detail in their book on the topic), or simply trying to hide in plain sight using what danah boyd has called “social steganography.” For social media companies that depend on accurate personal data, these tactics amount to an existential threat.

Tying ephemerality to privacy recasts complex desires for different speeds of communication at varying levels of exposure as retreat or concealment

The popularity of Snapchat and the recent replication of its features across Facebook’s platforms suggests ephemerality as an answer to our feelings of overexposure. But the commonsense assumption that an interest in the ephemeral reflects a desire for a more private social media may be too hasty. Tying ephemerality to privacy recasts the complex desires for diverse temporalities of interaction — different speeds of communication at varying levels of intimacy and exposure — as retreat, concealment, and privatization.

In practice, ephemerality opens up possibilities for those kinds of publicness and intimacy that are incompatible with the brand-building task of contributing to a personal archive, and the turn to ephemerality appropriates and commercializes long-held tactics of queers, people of color, and other marginalized populations. Though the ephemeral tends to be seen as synonymous with the fleeting, and the archival with the permanent, queer theorizing about temporality scrambles those assumptions, highlighting the contingency and obscurity of the archive, and the longevity and managed publicity of the ephemeral.

To treat ephemerality as a practice of withdrawal is to reinforce the narrow, static understanding of public and private that informs too many discussions around digital communication, framing online privacy as a matter of choosing between the normativity of mass communication or the implied deviancy of the secret. That is, ephemerality is conceived as necessary to permit users to keep hidden any traces of the way their lives diverge from what is held to be an “acceptable” public persona — a goalpost that constantly changes while implicitly adhering to the norms of cis white male discourse. The epistemology of the digital closet is that while broad political norms largely endure (slut shaming remains largely targeted at women and femmes, and is understood as uniquely damaging to them), the particularized aesthetic and affective boundaries of the normative are always modulating (thus all women become marked as potential sluts). The anxiety and vulnerability of being “undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network” (as Deleuze has famously described life under “societies of control”) leaves us scared or shamed into keeping secret the very forms of intimacy that make social media compelling. Because the norms of communication are constantly shifting, all intimate expression online is potentially suspect, particularly for those already marginalized.

In Updating to Remain the Same, Wendy Chun highlights the damage of this dynamic, where the wrong kind of disclosure is presumed to subject one to indefinite punishment. The conventions of “friending,” where all relationality is flattened (think of Facebook’s friendship anniversary videos that conflate length of connection to strength of ties), provide a wide surface for which “friends” can become leaks by shifting information beyond its expected context. The “consent once, circulate forever” infrastructures of social media fuse with entrenched patriarchal norms of publicness to create a “logic that blames the user, her habits of leaking, for the inherent leakiness of new media,” Chun writes. By linking permanence with circulation, social media concentrates vulnerability on the non-normative and the stigmatized.

As Michael Warner argues in “Publics and Counterpublics,” “not all sexualities are public or private in the same way.” The ritual expectations of coming out, combined with the palpable violence that shadows queer discourse, highlights how queer life can simultaneously be coded as excessively public and somehow not public enough. Facebook’s insistence on legal names is just one example of how straight notions of publicness — the assumption that no one with “integrity” should need more than one identity or have anything to hide, as Mark Zuckerberg once suggested — clash with queer life. The decentralization of name policing allows for vigilante queer targeting, while the centralization of decision making puts your fate in unaccountable and opaque hands, as Vauhini Vara detailed in this New Yorker piece. Those who live public lives with names that don’t match legal documents must choose to forgo an increasingly essential(ized) venue for public discourse or risk unaccountable adjudication and erasure.

Because the norms of communication are constantly shifting, all intimate expression online is potentially suspect, particularly for those already marginalized

This too much and yet not enough dynamic is becoming the generalized condition of social media, marrying the high-stakes pressure of posting material to keep yourself visible with the sad realization that algorithmic sorting will opaquely limit your public reach. Even as we are incentivized to promiscuously post, like, and follow, the growing chorus warning about online dangers suggests consolidation and deletion. The see-saw between the ambivalent pleasures of exposure and the ambivalent comforts of withdrawal incentivizes both queer orientations to sociality — for example, OkCupid’s embrace of relational forms outside monogamy — and the lucrative monogamous retrenchment: the consolidation of digital communications under the watchful eyes of trusted, “safe” platforms, grounded in the temporality of the familial.

Queer theory has explored different ways of negotiating security and publicity, and some of these are being mobilized in digital platforms, with ambiguous results. In some of Snapchat’s design choices, for instance, one can see how the company has allowed for an almost queer kind of ambiguity — one that withholds the transparency of clear relational definition in favor of promiscuous mixing — which can help sustain profitable engagement with the platform. Unlike other messaging apps, Snapchat’s interface does not make it clear if a message you received was sent to one person or many, so that message’s degree of publicness can’t be immediately inferred. This allows for some play in reading how an image is structuring audiences and intimacies, delineating a space where desire outside the normative can be experienced as pleasurable. As at a gay bathhouse, you can choose to imagine that dick (pic) as yours alone or thrill/despair in the erotics of being a shared and sharing object of affection.

Another of Snapchat’s affordances — its bright, cheerful screenshot notification — shows how transparency as well as ambiguity can allow for a kind of anxious play around the bounds of the private. Rather than frame notices of people’s screenshots of otherwise ephemeral messages as a warning, Snapchat’s counter frames it as a reward, even as it measures a potential increase in vulnerability for the sender. This celebrates circulation even as it notifies users of potentially unwanted exposure, and it may increase risk even as it appears to mitigate it, and vice versa. In other words, risk and its mitigation begin to seem paradoxically correlated. Revelations of exposure can stoke desire for more of it, even as it may raise anxiety levels.

Beyond “disappearing media” there are a variety of ways that queer temporalities have already infused social media. The queer theoretical interest in what has been excluded from archives — affect, marginalia, performance — are now speculatively captured through, for example, Facebook’s attempts to cajole and collect emotional expression. Jack Halberstam’s articulation of the “stretched out adolescences of queer culture” (from his 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place) has been incorporated into platforms as well: Facebook’s extends the queer time of college through a friend-centric model that implicitly de-emphasizes the familial in favor of networks of affiliation and affective kinship, while Snapchat appears to forgo the need for “grownup” and “responsible” social media users, monetizing youthful hedonism instead. 

If the queer play of digital communication becomes overwhelming, other companies are happy to exploit the dialectic between the anxious pleasure of vulnerability and the smothering comfort of security. Accepting Apple as your digital patriarch means full in-house transparency within Apple’s domain, in exchange for protection from the outside world. The company has made efforts to foreground its commitment to user privacy, having engaged in a high-profile confrontation with the FBI over unlocking users’ phones. But this apparent commitment is married to normalized familial surveillance baked into the iOS interface in such features as the “Find Your Friends” app, whose easy, indefinite location sharing seems less about finding friends than tracking your partner or children. In effect, Apple rebuts the surveillance state in the name of the surveillance family.

Despite the sometimes troubling ways in which it can be appropriated, queer culture offers lessons for a safer and more differentiated kind of publicness. Performance traditions in queer communities have long allowed for the passing down of ways of being and thinking too dangerous to be codified in print or silicon. The increasing tendency for queer performances and events to ban or severely curtail photography and video protects the public airing of dangerous ideas while heightening engagement with the present. While the presumption of social media has been that to store is to signal importance, the ephemeral turn suggests a belated recognition that there is force to the fleeting. Nathan Jurgenson has argued that ephemerality, precisely because it “welcomes the possibility of forgetting,” also “sharpens viewers’ focus”; knowing you have only a moment to see something concentrates attention and heightens impact.

In other words, the ephemeral can be all the more sticky for its impermanence. The force of ephemera lives on, as José Estaban Muñoz suggested in Cruising Utopia, “as trace, the remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor.” One need only remember a wink from across the train or a hard look from your mother that got lodged in your body. A simple gesture can signal across language and generation yet maintain some of the ambiguity that archives claim to reconcile. Rather than the patina of “the real” that shades the archives, that “fattened” moment at the protest march or the club gives you a felt sense of queer possibility without the expectations of identity maintenance or the possible shame of mass publicity.

But even if the ephemeral turn has brought some of this play and ambiguity to the interfaces of social media and opened opportunities for queer digital intimacy outside the public-private binary, it cannot singlehandedly change the underlying dynamics of contemporary capitalism. As social networks in physical spaces, like gay bars, begin to be shuttered, the aesthetics, affects, and affordances of interpersonal communication are increasingly framed by a small number of highly leveraged tech companies.

Unless agitated by relentless pressure from social media users, these companies will be content to publicize profitable peculiarities and disappear dangerous difference. Social media corporations are subject to the limited risk tolerance of advertisers, especially as platforms grow and face increasing pressure to monetize attention. These companies see ephemerality as a risk management strategy; the risk of losing anxious users to other platforms or IRL communication, the risks of permanently hosting non-normative expression, and the risky business of becoming the arbiters of social acceptability. If we accept the conflation of privacy with the ephemeral, forms of social life deemed risky will take on the shame of secrecy even as they proliferate. In the age of social media, we need a politics of the temporal, creating and advocating for diverse and delightful digital timescales, while decentralizing these sites of identity modulation and their enforcement of norms.

Benjamin Haber is a doctoral candidate in sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is currently co-editing a special issue of Women & Performance on the queer digital.