Ephemeral moments, briefly captured and briefly shared through imagery, are at the heart of Snapchat—a social media platform used by nearly 75 percent of teens in America, a Pew Research Center report released in May 2018 suggests; it is a tool that is designed to playfully combine text captions and imagery through a here today, gone tomorrow approach. What you post there is generally meant to last no longer than 24 hours before disappearing. The tremendously world-changing impact a Snapchat post can have, however, became clear in early 2018, when a teenaged Snapchat user captured the horrendous moments of the mass shooting of students, by a former student, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
This was a snap that did not—and will not—disappear. Copied and reposted online and included in mainstream media coverage of the tragedy, it has taken on a life of its own; was part of a student-driven online social media presence that helped spur the March for Our Lives (#MarchForOurLives) protest movement that has attracted participation from students and adults in more than 800 cities worldwide and its companion initiative, Vote for Our Lives (#VoteForOurLives); and, within one month of the shooting, had produced gun-control legislation in Oregon and Florida unlike any that previously came out of years of fruitless conversations between those in favor of somehow limiting access to guns and those who firmly believe that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution provides absolute, uncontrolled access to guns.
Watching that snap or looking at March for Our Lives images on the Instagram and Flickr photo-sharing sites takes you to the heart of one of the most divisive debates in America today. You don’t just see people affected by an issue seeking some sort of positive resolution: you see the debate itself playing out in sometimes spiteful, vicious comments between those who find themselves on opposite sides of a debate that was producing few concrete results—until that snap went viral, the students became advocates with often very sophisticated approaches to the social (and mainstream) media tools available to them, and those students joined the voices of those insisting that “enough is enough” and that a positive response to the most awful of situations had to come sooner than later.
The fact that Snapchat was the initial vehicle for providing painfully jarringly intimate glimpses into another tragedy unfolding was probably something that those creating Snapchat could never have predicted when they created a platform for capturing and briefly disseminating ephemeral moments.
“I don’t think [Facebook Co-founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer] Mark Zuckerberg ever dreamed that Facebook would be involved in presidential election scandals and the fake-news cycle. Nor do I think that Snapchat leadership pictured teens snapping violent and traumatic injury in the midst of a horrific crisis,” Samantha Becker, the independent consultant and President of SAB Creative & Consulting, says. “It’s not necessarily something you envision from the get-go, but it makes sense that social networks would be effective vehicles for spreading news, exposing real-life events in progress, etc. But there can definitely be backlash. I’m thinking about the Logan Paul YouTube scandal from a couple months ago, where he showed footage from a suicide. People are rightfully concerned that social media can glamorize the tragic. It’s a very delicate balance and there is a fine line between sharing something that spurs positive action vs. negative reactions. The in-situ experience of social media means that people aren’t always thinking before they post—and they can be greatly penalized for that or end up inspiring the wrong kind of action.
“I don’t have a solution for how and where to draw the line, but we could use more guidance around that and more ways to educate forthcoming generations and provide proper digital literacy training.”
Briefly tracing the early, rapid growth of #MarchForOurLives provides a strong reminder that specific social media platforms do not operate in a vacuum; they are part of an overall combination of traditional and relatively new media formats available to those who want to take the small- and large-scale steps that can lead to changing the world. #MarchForOurLives at least in part grew rapidly because those Snapchat images inspired action in a variety of ways: through mainstream and cable news programs; postings on other social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and YouTube; fundraising efforts coordinated by the nonprofit March for Our Lives Action Fund and others; and the personalization of the story through Parkland student-activists including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. In fact, it is the personalization of that message through the voices of Gonzalez, Hogg, and others that draw us and inspire us to action through the power of storytelling—through Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and book-length explorations that bring these stories to people who might otherwise be overwhelmed and be unable to see that the road from observer to activist can be traveled in many different ways and in relatively short periods of time. Hogg and his sister Lauren appear to understand this implicitly: less than six months after the shooting in Parkland, they were able to publish #NeverAgain, a call to action published by Random House Trade Paperbacks.
N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the twelfth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.