Snapchat, which allows users to share photos that will be automatically deleted after a selected number of seconds, is out to do much more than just provide a good laugh for teenagers. Instead, founder Evan Spiegel contends that Snapchat is transforming the very way we communicate by breaking down the barriers between online and offline experience, a distinction that's come to be called digital dualism.
This vision rises out of the sociological theories of Nathan Jurgenson, a PhD student at the University of Maryland and a recent addition to the Snapchat team. Jurgenson noticed that most digital interactions were primarily the act of reporting on offline experiences. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Whisper offer users a means to connect with one another over things that happen to us in “real life.” Snapchat, on the other hand, uses digital media itself as the means of communication. Jurgenson noticed that “there are no comments displayed on a Snap, no hearts or likes. With ephemerality, communication is done through photos rather than around them.”
The act of using photos as a means of communication further breaks down the walls between our on- and offline lives, which Jurgenson described as digital dualism. Snapchat hopes to be at the forefront of a complete shift in the means by which we communicate with one another.
How does Snapchat fit with our understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God?
The reality, of course, is that most Snapchat users (who are largely teenagers) are less concerned with the philosophical and potentially world-changing underpinnings of the app. We may want to consider, however, the broader implications of Snapchat’s vision. How does Snapchat’s vision of humanity fit with our understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God?
Passing over the less savory uses to which teenagers put the app, Snapchat’s underlying attempts to break down the barriers between online and offline experience should, perhaps, give us pause. In the wake of the State of the Union, a Buzzfeed article contended that one can watch a live event or tweet about that event, but not both. Attempting to mix offline experience with digital interaction detracts from one’s ability to fully engage with the “real world” environment. While there are neurological reasons for this, I suspect that this also has something to do with the image of God.
One of the most fundamental aspects of being image-bearers is that Jesus participated in that image by becoming flesh and making His dwelling among us. The Son of God did not come as anything less than the fully embodied, in-the-flesh, offline person of Jesus - even though many of the earliest heresies tried to find such an alternative. In turn, this in-the-flesh-ness of Jesus is at the heart of the image of God – so much of what it means to be human is in our very physical embodiedness. To put it lightly, Jesus didn’t just send us a Snapchat of Himself - He came in physical, embodied, flesh and blood.
This is not to say that Snapchat is all bad or that Christians should not use the app or anything like that. Yet Snapchat – in hoping to erase digital dualism - asks us to buy into a framework that places digital experience on par with offline experience. At the end of the day, Snapchat asks us to buy into a vision of humanity that settles for something less than the image-bearers we are called to be.