The Short and the Sweet: Social Media Temporalities

Social media have been examined from nearly every angle available; they have been demonized, exulted, dismissed and celebrated for their frivolity. However, no matter what your opinion on the subject, one thing that is clear is that social media is demanding more and more of people’s time in our society. We give social media an inch of our time, and it tries to take a mile.

In this study, I examine various social media websites and apps through a lens of temporality. In order to make money, social media companies structure users’ time in a two-fold manner. First, as Christian Fuchs explains, social media websites are designed to keep users coming back more often, and for longer periods of time. Second, as I argue in this paper, social media structure the content on their sites temporally as well in service of the same goals. This can be done through the imposition of time limits on the existence of data, or through the recollection of data from years past. The imposed temporal regimes of the sites in question – Snapchat, Bumble, Timehop, and Facebook – offer new forms of communication which are interesting to users and keep them engaged, while simultaneously offering capital benefits to the companies that make them.

Christian Fuchs on Social Media Time

Christian Fuchs (2014) tells us that one of the best ways for capitalists to make more money is to turn paid labour into unpaid labour. This means eliminating an existing job and passing on the residual labour to the customer. Two examples Fuchs gives us of the results of this practice are self-service gas stations, which have eliminated the job of the gas station attendant, and IKEA furniture, which the customer builds for themselves (p. 111). Fuchs calls the process by which customers absorb this labour “prosumption” (p. 111). Social media websites employ this principle even more effectively than these examples, requiring users to produce the entirety of the content of their websites. The work that users do in creating social content does not feel like work, leading Fuchs to call it a form of play labour (p. 112). This content is what makes the website useful for users, and it is also what generates the data that social media websites sell to advertisers.

Because this data is the lifeblood of the society media industry, the way for them to increase profits is to ensure that they have as much data as possible. A combination of more time spent on the website and more content to be viewed results in more data being created (Fuchs, p. 114). As such, social media websites are structured in order to keep users on the site for the maximum amount of time possible, both returning to the site more often and staying for longer periods of time (Kaun & Stiernstedt, 2014). They generate more data as they view more posts, and they are able to be shown more advertisements the longer they stay.

Kaun and Stiernstedt explain how this site design works through the example of Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm. The algorithm is based on three factors: weight, affinity, and time decay (Kaun & Stiernstedt, 2014). Instead of displaying posts chronologically, Facebook uses this algorithm to ensure that the information that will be most interesting to the user is what they see first when they open the app or the website. This works to draw them in and keep them engaged, rather than having them simply close the app when they see posts that do not interest them, or see posts they have already viewed.

Of course, social media websites do not only need to be well-designed to keep users coming back; they also must differentiate themselves from the myriad other social media sites to compete in the market. Each company must find its niche. For some of these companies, that niche involves photo filters, messaging functions, or better privacy setting. For others, it involves the calculated control of time. I now turn to two examples of how social media companies use time as a gimmick to attract potential prosumers: messages with timed disappearance, and social memory functions.

Decaying Data: Snapchat and Bumble

In his book Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (2013), Hartmut Rosa describes three factors in the acceleration of our society: technological acceleration, the acceleration of social change, and the acceleration of the pace of life. It is the last one which pertains to this discussion. The acceleration of the pace of life works in two ways: an increase in the number of “episodes of action” in our lives, and a shortening of each episode (p. 121). We achieve this acceleration by making certain actions faster, reducing or eliminating breaks and downtimes, multi-tasking, and replacing slower activities with faster ones, such as sending an email instead of writing a letter (p. 122). Objectively, these accelerations are measurable: both work and leisure time are cut into smaller and smaller pieces to which we give less and less attention (p. 125). The takeover of the blogging market, once dominated by platforms that allowed long-form blog entries, by micro-blogging sites like Twitter epitomizes this trend. Subjectively, we both want to live faster, as we grow ever more afraid of missing out on the increasing number of opportunities presented to us, and need to live faster, as the changing temporality of our society leads to expectations that must be met in order to stay afloat in the workforce (p. 134).

Thus, we turn to frivolous activities such as television for relief in a world that is moving faster than we can keep up with. Rosa calls television “instant gratification” (p. 139). It doesn’t require much time or brainpower, making it much easier than other cultural activities, like visiting the opera or reading a book. Rosa describes a feeling people experience that they simply do not have time to do the things that are important to them (such as, for example, reading or going to concerts) (p. 136). This is a common issue amongst television users: many people have no trouble watching five episodes of a television show in a row, yet have trouble making the commitment to watch a movie that would require the same amount of time.

Social media, perhaps, provides an even better example of instant gratification than television does. Posts take only seconds to read, and there are so many posts available that one person could never even make a dent in trying to read them all. Social media makes us feel good, because it caters to our need to read information in short periods of downtime between other episodes of action, and doesn’t require a commitment that could lead to us missing out on something more important. There is a never ending slew of posts for us to pay minimal attention to, even when completing another task simultaneously.

There are some social media platforms, however, that go one step further and actually build this acceleration into their apps. They take the trend of acceleration and turn it into a business model. Snapchat and Bumble are two apps which place time limits on their content, only allowing messages to be of a certain temporal length or only allowing them to exist for a certain period of time. This temporal control both creates new forms of communication for users, and works in the companies’ favour by saving them storage space.

Snapchat is an instant messaging platform that allows users to send photographs or short video messages to friends, or to send traditional chat messages. However, the receiver of these posts is only able to view them for a maximum of ten seconds, after which time they disappear forever (though there are options for taking screenshots or allowing for one replay of a message). Users can also post “stories”, which are the same as messages, but are visible to everyone on the user’s friends list rather than just the people they have chosen to message. Snapchat also offers photo filters, and the ability to write or draw on the photos and videos.

In a study of the ephemerality of Snapchat and its implications for users, Bayer et al. (2015) identified two key ways that Snapchat communications differed from those of other social media. The first was that the platform relies on photographs and videos for messaging (p. 967). The second is that photos must be shared at (or very close to) the time they are taken; there is no way to share a photograph that has previously been saved on the phone (p. 959). Because of this need to share photos rather than words, and to share them quickly, users reported that Snapchat facilitated communication of more “everyday” information than other channels (p. 966). It is not associated with big events, but with quick snippets into people’s regular schedules. For example, a curated group photo of friends may not be shared on Snapchat, as these photos are often taken through a series of trial and error shots, but a user may share a photo of their meal or the street on their walk to school.

Users also reported that, while still not as enjoyable as face-to-face interactions, they found their Snapchat interactions more enjoyable than those on other platforms, such as Facebook or email (p. 965). Snapchat has created a new mode of quick, quotidian communication through the way that it is structured temporally. This fast messaging form easily fits in with users’ accelerating lives; snapchats are among the shortest episodes of action one can find, can be compounded quickly, and require little to no thought or planning, making them instantly gratifying. Users have flocked to this platform because this new form of communication is more fun and accessible for them than others that lack the temporal component.

Bumble is another app which works on the principle of shortening episodes of action. Bumble is a dating app that resembles the more popular Tinder, with a few key differences. The first is that the women must make the first move to begin a conversation (in same-sex couplings, either party can initiate contact). The second is that matches disappear after 24 hours. The reason given for the 24 hour deadline is that it forces users to message their matches right away and not let them fester. The company claims that this leads to more confident interactions, and users seem to agree (Magaldi, 2015).

Each of these apps’ temporal structures have mediated the communication that takes place on them in ways that users find appealing, which benefits both the company and the users of the product. However, this is another way in which Snapchat and Bumble benefit from their imposed time limits that users may not find readily apparent: the lack of requirement for large data storage.

Unlike platforms like Facebook or Tumblr, which pride themselves on their ability to archive huge amounts of photos and text, Snapchat and Bumble make no such promises. In fact, Snapchat boasts that its data disappears, both from users’ phones and their own servers, almost immediately after the message is opened as a way to convince users that their privacy is being better protected. However, by only saving metadata to sell to advertisers and tossing out the rest, Snapchat is saving millions of dollars a year that would otherwise have been spent on archiving photos (Pandurangan, 2014). Even when users to choose to take a screenshot of a message, the data is stored on the user’s phone rather than Snapchat’s servers (McHugh, 2013). Thus, Snapchat and Bumble save money compared to their competitors by contributing to the acceleration of the pace of life. They chop their content into smaller and smaller episodes of action, and then use those very limits to attract users.

The Enduring Ephemeral: Facebook and Timehop

Now, I will review a second example of the structuring of temporalities on social media websites, this time reaching into the past.

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2008) has examined the memory of digital technologies. She explains that digital memory is not perfect, and does not retain information indefinitely; instead, it can appear near-perfect because it is constantly being refreshed in order to store data (p. 166). For contrast, she offers an explanation of Vannevar Bush’s memex, a machine meant to extrapolate human memory from the brain and record it on microfilm. The user of the memex would then make connections so that the data could easily be found again, allowing them to forget and saving them from going over the same information repetitively in their mind (p. 158). But this is not how digital media works. Digital media must constantly refresh the information stored in them in order to save it from disappearing. It turns data into moments in time (p. 166).

Chun then discusses the “enduring ephemerality” of digital media and, more specifically, blogs (p. 170). Blog posts are always simultaneously old and new. New posts are already old, being archived immediately. Old posts can become new again when they are discovered by a new user for the first time, or rediscovered by a familiar user. Digital media always exists both in the past and in the potential future.

Two social media platforms which have features built on this idea of the enduring ephemeral are Timehop and Facebook (via its “On This Day” feature). Both platforms display posts to users which were made on the same day in previous years: for example, on June 1st, 2016, you would see posts from June 1st, 2015, or 2014, or 2013, etc. On Facebook, one of these memories at a time pops up at the top of the newsfeed. They do not appear every day, likely due to the fact that the user may not have posted anything of note on that day before. On Timehop, this feature is the entire purpose of the app: users log in once per day to see posts from that day in every year available. There are options on both platforms to reshare the post to the users account in the present time, and on Facebook, there is an option to contact any other users tagged in the post.

These posts are often simply viewed by the user and then closed, thus not being reshared in any way. Sometimes, the user will choose to repost the content again in the present, in order to remind others of the memory. This is often done as part of the popular hashtag meme #TBT, or Throwback Thursday, for which users post nostalgic photographs to their social media accounts on Thursdays (there are other memes for different days, such as Far Back Friday [#FBF], or Way Back Wednesday [#WBW]. Sometimes, the date is disregarded altogether, users posting Throwback Thursday posts on Sundays just because they feel like it). Other times, seeing the old photograph or text post may be the impetus for sending a message to an old friend (Dzieza, 2015).

While Timehop is a self-contained app that users must make the choice to download, Facebook is a website that most people visit every day, and significant backlash has arisen from the lack of opt-in process for the memory function, especially concerning painful memories. Users voiced complaints about Facebook displaying memories of ex-lovers or friends or pets who had passed away. One user was shown a photo of their apartment burning down (Dzieza, 2015). Facebook has since introduced filters for past relationships and deceased friends, though it cannot catch everything (Constine, 2015). Users can also ban certain dates from showing up on their timeline, such as Valentine’s Day. Interestingly, Timehop offers no filters for information at all, yet has not faced any of the same backlash that Facebook has. That Timehop is a much smaller service may be part of the reason, but the question of choice in what memories you see seems to be key: users are fine with seeing painful memories when they log into Timehop because they expect it; Facebook surprises them.

Each of these apps has found a way to monetize data by making old posts new again, extending the enduring ephemerality of the data. Timehop, though it does not collect meta data, has become so popular that it is able to make money through angel investors (Loeb, 2014). For Facebook, however, the process by which this feature helps them make money is more complex. It is part of the larger design scheme that I discussed earlier in this essay, which attempts to keep users coming back more often and for longer. For some users, specifically those with few Friends on the site, there can be a dearth of data with which Facebook can entice them to return. By making old posts new again, Facebook is getting more use of data by recycling it, drawing from an archive in order to find something that might have happened long enough ago that it will be interesting for the user to view a second time. If, for example, there have been no new posts by a user’s friends in several hours, Facebook can draw on old data to have something “new” to show the user when they next log in, thus keeping them on the website so that they can collect more data for advertisers. Users get to see old memories (and even if they don’t want to, they often still remain on the site to read the posts), and Facebook extends data’s usefulness for profit.

Concluding Thoughts

Social media websites are designed to get users to devote more time to them, more often, and structuring the content of those websites temporally can provide a new form of communication for users that enhances the draw of the platform. Users have more fun interactions, and get curated memories presented to them. Furthermore, those temporal structures can actually be used to save money for the company as well. Snapchat and Bumble save storage space by making their posts shorter than those of other sites, and Facebook and Timehop get another use out of existing data.

Though user experience must be thoroughly considered when designing a social media site, monetization is the key to a business’s survival, and imposing these temporal limits offers two-fold savings: attracting more users and saving money on their data. What remains to be studied that I believe will prove most fruitful in looking at social media temporalities is how users react to these time limits. Users structure their communication within the formats provided, but also create workarounds in order to tell the stories that they want, despite limitations. These non-normative uses can tell us more about how communication evolves in a digital world. For now, though, I leave you with Benjamin Franklin’s words, which sum up the business model of social media companies quite nicely: “time is money.”

References

Bayer, J. B., Ellison, N. B., Schoenebeck, S. Y., & Falk, E. B. (2015). Sharing the small moments: ephemeral social interaction on Snapchat. Information, Communication & Society Information, Communication & Society, 19(7), 956-977.

Constine, J. (2015). Facebook’s Timehop Clone “On This Day” Shows You Your Posts From Years Ago. from http://techcrunch.com/2015/03/24/facehop/

Dzieza, J. (2015). Facebook’s new nostalgia feature is already bringing up painful memories. from http://www.theverge.com/2015/4/2/8315897/facebook-on-this-day-nostalgia-app-bringing-back-painful-memories

Fuchs, C. (2014). Digital prosumption labour on social media in the context of the capitalist regime of time. Time & Society Time & Society, 23(1), 97-123.

Kaun, A., & Stiernstedt, F. (2014). Facebook time: Technological and institutional affordances for media memories. New Media and Society New Media and Society, 16(7), 1154-1168.

Kyong Chun, W. H. (2008). The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory. Critical inquiry., 35(1), 148.

Loeb, S. (2014). Social media nostalgia app Timehop raises $10M. from http://vator.tv/news/2014-07-22-social-media-nostalgia-app-timehop-raises-10m

Magaldi, K. (2015). 6 Mistakes To Avoid Making On Bumble. from http://www.bustle.com/articles/119768-6-mistakes-to-avoid-making-on-bumble

McHugh, M. (2013). Yes, you can recover dead Snapchats – and here’s the video proof. from http://www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/yes-you-can-recover-dead-snapchats-and-heres-the-video-proof/

Pandurangan, V. (2014). The Key to Snapchat’s Profitability: It’s Dirt Cheap to Run. from http://www.wired.com/2014/01/secret-snapchats-monetization-success-will-surprise/

Rosa, H., & Trejo-Mathys, J. (2013). Social acceleration : a new theory of modernity. New York: Columbia University Press.

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