Jan 31, 2020

Snapmaps: Less Selfie, More Dystopian Self-Surveillance

It’s absurd at best and sinister at worst that something as personal as location is free information to people you met once, writes Jordan Nann.

Jordan NannJunior Editor
Dylan Furdyk for The University Times

Snapmaps is absolutely ruining my life, not to be dramatic or anything.

We all know the fun yellow ghost that entered our lives sometime in 2013 when we (or at least I) were in the midst of our peak awkward years. A fan favourite among fuckboys and non-fuckboys alike, Snapchat quickly made its way to the forefront of popular consciousness.

We are all also, presumably, familiar with the Snapmaps feature, introduced a few years later to the chagrin of privacy advocates and the delight of basically everyone else. The one that allows us to see where all of our friends are with a mere swipe. I don’t mean this is ruining my life in any way that is not completely my own fault. It didn’t catch me by surprise, or cause me to lose jobs or opportunities or even friends really. It’s just so, so addictive.


When I’m sitting, bored in the library, I might do a quick check to see who else is here. Or when I’m bored at home, I might see where all of my friends are. Not that I care, but just because I can. It is a totally healthy way to pass time, right?

While it may seem unrelated to this article, it is important to note that life can be really lonely, and college can be really, really lonely. Everyone has times when they feel alone, and having immediate access to the locations of all of your friends is the absolute last thing you need in those moments. Look at all the people together at lunch – wonder why you weren’t invited? Or why on earth is Sarah hanging out with James? It creates more negativity. There is almost no instance in which checking Snapmaps when you’re bored actually makes you feel better. It is hard not to compare your life to everyone else’s bitmoji on the map. I feel that, hard.

Here is a brief disclaimer for 99 per cent of the Snapmaps users reading this: I hold no vindictive agenda against you – it just be like that sometimes

The fact of the matter is that Snapchat is just like every other social media, insofar as it can look like everyone is hanging out again without you – which, objectively, isn’t true. Here is a brief disclaimer for 99 per cent of the Snapmaps users reading this: I hold no vindictive agenda against you – it just be like that sometimes. We have all read those articles forwarded to us by parents, uncles and aunts about how Instagram is ruining people’s self-esteem, and why it’s not good for you to be constantly looking at the best parts of other people’s lives. These same family members constantly remind us that it’s not healthy to be so obsessed with others’ online activity.

Have you ever not gone on Snapchat, or turned off or on Snapmaps just when you are doing something particularly interesting (or the opposite if its not) just so when people look at it they think something? No shame, been there. I’ve ghostmoded for three hours so no one knew I was just at home by myself. On other occasions, I’ve chosen to ignore every snap for four hours so people might think I was still somewhere different. And then, of course, there have been times when I haven’t opened anything after nights out so people didn’t know I just went home early.

Maybe I’m the only one who cares this much, or can’t stop checking maps, or ignores it just to look like I am somewhere else. I highly doubt that, though. I think Snapmaps is just another outlet for our insecurities and our loneliness.

Everyone knows that “comparison is the thief of joy” because every cheesy English teacher, and every well-meaning parent, has repeated it constantly. And it’s one of those things you can never publicly admit to believing without sounding too much like said cheesy people. But as much as it pains me to admit it, and it does, these well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual people have a point on this one.

Without consciously meaning to, you can end up living your life in synchrony with everyone else in your social circles. How much time you spend at home, in the library, in town or even off the maps is in reaction to other people’s. If you have thought about Snapmaps (and who hasn’t?) there is at least a tiny grain of this comparison in your mind. Sure, it’s just to see where people are, sheer curiosity and nothing else. But the fact that it’s still possible means it rarely ends there.

I can’t really imagine a time where knowing the location of your entire social circle was acceptable, so why is it now?

The complete dependence on other people’s perception of us is not even the only problem with Snapmaps. It somehow totally normalises behaviour akin to that of an overprotective parent. Everyone is guilty of a little Snapmapping to see who is at college for lunch, or who went home this weekend, and it has become, at least in part, a totally okay aspect of life online. But constantly checking where people are, keeping tabs on their locations and who they are with verges on the dystopian. Imagine if someone before the time of Snapchat knew your location at all times. I can’t really imagine a time where knowing the location of your entire social circle was acceptable, so why is it now?

And yet, if someone tells me they saw via Snapchat that I was somewhere, anywhere, I don’t bat an eye, and I still check it to see who is around. It really is emblematic of the growing disintegration of any notion of a private life. It’s all very The Circle (2013 book, 2017 Tom Hanks movie) or very Big Brother (celebrity and 1984). Now, of course, you can totally opt out of Snapmaps, as many do, without much of an issue at all. However, the problem lies in the assumption that you are going to be on Snapmaps. You don’t turn it on, but you have to turn it off. There is the assumption that you are using it. Your data is only private from your friends if you make it so.

Lamenting the diminution of privacy and wailing at increasingly Black Mirror-esque levels of voyeurism is the most commonly articulated criticism of social media. This criticism is, generally speaking, a reaction to the seemingly insatiable desire of social media users to thrust their private life out into the public domain. I am just as guilty as the average person, if not more so, of this modern exhibitionism. If I do just about anything, you know there is an Instagram story of it, and somehow my 40-odd closest friends need to be aware of my every thought and feeling via my private story, and in case you didn’t know I went here, or bought this, I have photos of it to share. I don’t say this to sound like one of those people who’s against social media, and I’m not on a path that will stop me oversharing my whole life, but it’s a discussion worth having.

Every aspect of my life I consider to be something that everyone else needs to know about. On one level, of course, I am aware that no one cares, but sharing is more for the sharer, is it not? It’s absurd at best and sinister at worst that something as personal as my location is essentially free information to people I met once. And it’s ruining my life.

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