Written by Hayle Chen.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.

Communication. Thirteen letters, five syllables, and an abundance of dichotomies: we do it all the time. From the fleeting goodbye you call out to your roommate as the door slams shut, to delivering well-composed answers specifically devised for a life-altering interview, communication is undoubtedly humanity’s unwavering constant. However, do we recognize it as a prerequisite for a well-ordered society? Are its implications palpable to the everyday man? More often than not, we like to think they are—but our most popular means of communication beg to differ.

At its core, the concept of communication is one that denotes an interchange of ideas—the act one takes in making one’s thoughts known to another. Existing as the cornerstone of human flourishing throughout the ages, communication has been the grand determinant of society’s greatest triumphs and gravest controversies—the genesis of revolutionary discoveries when present, and the instigator of war where it failed to exist.

Thus, when nineteenth-century Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw proclaims that, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” he strikes a resounding chord. Serving as the basis for seemingly every interaction that occurs, there’s something particularly abstract about a word that possesses such a multitude of meanings, one that, when done correctly, requires such a delicate execution. Therefore, recognizing Shaw’s genuine urgency for meaningful communication in a world sullied by deep-seated divisions, we would benefit from listening lest we wish to perish at the hands of basic misunderstandings. 

As a result, amidst the relentless tumult of everyday life, you would think meaningless communication could find no refuge—that the trivial has no place amongst the world’s more compelling dilemmas. However, you would be sorely mistaken to believe that the inane doesn’t rise above all, especially in an increasingly technologically advanced age. The prime example? Multimedia messaging app and international phenomenon Snapchat.

Launched in 2011 by then Stanford students, Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown, Snapchat (originally christened “Picaboo”) began as a platform in which users could send and share photos that would eventually disappear as a result of the app’s programmed timer. Evolving past mere photo-sharing into the frenzied realm of filter-using, video-recording, and location-sharing amongst its plethora of features, Snapchat has intrinsically changed the manner in which those of the modern era communicate. No longer confined to curating a singular picture for an Instagram feed or ambiguously photo-dumping on Facebook, Snapchat users are able to engage in a type of free communication with the added benefit of finality; however long you set the viewing time at, is as long as the viewer will have the opportunity to see it. Thus, with such a limited window of time to strike a conversation or convey a message, what frequently ends up being communicated is (surprise!) nothing at all. 

And while renowned Greek philosopher Aristotle contends that man is intrinsically a social animal, could he even have predicted this evolution of meaningless communication? One glance at the intricacies that surround the modern “Snapstreak” thoroughly suggests the answer to be no.

Introduced five years after the app’s inception, a streak is a numerical value indicating how long one consistently communicates with another person—a fire emoji and stark “3” emblazon the screen next to the person’s name the moment the streak is formed. In order to maintain the designation, the said two people must send at least one picture or video to each other in a 24-hour period lest their friendship be set ablaze in a harrowing fire.

Yet, the query may be: What is really is a streak? What does it even signify? Understandably, to the uninitiated, the concept of a “Snapstreak” might be a confounding portmanteau of seemingly unrelated words, but to a grand majority of the younger generations, it’s a relationship defined—a seemingly tangible indication that you have friends and can prove it. Wholly breaking the barrier of in-person interaction that relationships once necessitated—and normalizing communication that primarily features dimly-lit pictures of half a face—the streak is truly revolutionary in its ability to maintain a semblance of authenticity.

So here lies the very contradiction of human existence: Our very beings necessitate communication, but somehow, we’ve been conditioned to be content with forms that possess little to no substance. With the presence of a seemingly infinite number of applications that allow for constant interaction in the most overt or subtle of ways, how are we expected to make each interaction meaningful? Perhaps, we aren’t—and perhaps, as technology advances we’ll find ourselves turning farther into the warm embrace of the insipid.

Thus, while Snapchat’s popularity as an app may be baffling in itself, one can easily see how the desire for connection and a semblance of communication has propelled its rise. Drastically shifting the world’s conception of human interaction and exemplifying the idea of truly meaningless communication, streaks have taken the world by storm. With only one to ten seconds to display a photo, what do you have to lose? But perhaps the better question to ask when we analyze the absurd amount of time we spend each day communicating about the inane, might be: What have you gained

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