Pics and It Didn’t Happen – the Ephemeral Age of Snapchat

May 29, 2016

CALGARY, MAY 29, 2016 — Blink and you might miss it.

The phrase “Pics, or it didn’t happen” demonstrates just how much value we place on the documentation of lives. From the family vacation to birthday parties to the salad we had for lunch, pictures are needed to prove that something happened, to authenticate and document experience. Then along came Snapchat and, according to Rachelle Ann Tan of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, we’re now in the era of “Pics and it didn’t happen”.

Tan is looking at digital content created by Snapchat and asks: given that “snaps” are never meant to be retained or preserved, how is meaning and value produced? Tan will be presenting the study at the 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary.

Facebook and Instagram provide ways to post pictures and videos that are regulated and archived with the use of profiles, timelines and the generation of metadata. Facebook and Instagram aid in the documentation of experiences. And that record, that documentation, is archived indefinitely. 

“Knowing that those digital objects are not going to disappear any time soon, there is this general obsession with the correctness of these objects’ metadata -- time, location, etc., as well as an anxiety regarding the reception of the things that we post online,” said Tan. “Is this the right photo to get a lot of likes? Are my status updates/comments/descriptions witty enough? What if my crush/boss/potential employer sees my profile?”

Snapchat did away with all that.

With Snapchat, images are accessible for only seconds before they self-destruct.  Snapchat’s ephemeral nature appeals to “living in the moment” and sharing real-time experience as opposed to the “curated” experiences that Facebook or Instagram provide.

“With Snapchat, what matters more is the fact that people have looked at what you’ve sent them and that you’re able to tell that they did so,” said Tan. “Taking the time to open and view the snaps that your friends have sent you has become almost synonymous with participating in your friends’ lived experience.”

Snapchat discourages traditional acts of preservation and reproduction. Blink and you might miss it.  But why does this matter?

According to Tan, it is through the very act of preservation and reproduction that culture is transmitted. Culture is a social domain that has to do with the human experience over a period of time. But Snapchat has changed the way we value images. It is interested in the lived experience, the temporary. Images are ephemeral.

Rachelle Ann Tan will be presenting this research on May 31 at the 2016 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary. This presentation is called “‘Pics and It Didn’t Happen’: Theorizing Snapchat and the Temporary Photographic Vision” and will take place at 10:30 am at Social Science - 423 at the University of Calgary.


About the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress is the largest interdisciplinary conference in Canada, and one of the largest in the world. Now in its 85th year, Congress brings together approximately 70 academic associations that represent a rich spectrum of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, including literature, history, theatre, film studies, education, music, sociology, geography, social work and many others. Congress 2016 is hosted by the University of Calgary. For more information, visit

About the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences promotes research and teaching for the advancement of an inclusive, democratic and prosperous society. With a membership now comprising over 160 universities, colleges and scholarly associations, the Federation represents a diverse community of 91,000 researchers and graduate students across Canada. The Federation organizes Canada’s largest academic gathering, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, bringing together more than 8,000 participants each year. For more information about the Federation, visit

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