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On the slipperiness of time

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A few days before I left for college in the fall of 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall in South Florida near my hometown. On Snapchat every September, or whenever I search “Miami” or “rain,” through short videos, I remember what it was like: The sky was smooth and starless like black silk. Summer lightning tinged with blue licked the horizon, and I could not tell the sound of ocean waves breaking upon the shore apart from the sound of palm fronds trembling in the wind. Inside the apartment, mosquitos laid eggs in the ponded dish water. After hours without power, the food in the refrigerator was no longer cold, and the air was soured by the smell of spoiled milk and rotting eggs reeking through their shells. I lay in my bed atop the blanket, my eyes heavy with sleep, listening to the same dumb songs over and over again while the dogs pawed at my bedside, not wanting to sleep alone. That long night, listening to the sound of slanted rain as it pummeled sky-scraping buildings, I thought about how I used to try to catch the rain, cupping my hands together in a near-prayer position, leaving a bit of space between my palms. 

The next day, the sun glittered on asphalt streets littered with broken glass. People who had evacuated the beach went home; some walked along the Venetian Causeway, dragging their suitcases behind them. That morning, my mother left to look for hot food and did not return until after dark. Every fall since then, prompted by Snapchat, I remember the flooded streets and empty grocery store shelves again as if it were just last week, the other day, just now.

Founded in 2011, Snapchat is a social networking application where users can send messages, known as Chats, and capture, edit and share photos and videos, known as Snaps, with their friends. Usually, these Snaps and Chats are short-lived, disappearing within seconds. However, Memories, added in 2016, is a feature that allows users to store saved photos and videos directly on Snapchat’s servers, whereas in the past users had to save their Snaps to their phone’s camera roll if they wanted to keep them. Each Memory appears with a tiny date and location stamp in the top left hand corner. 

It may seem counterintuitive for an application known for the fleetingness of its content to implement a feature dedicated to its preservation. But Snapchat was never about having temporary content just for the sake of it; to me, Snapchat has always been in service of making room for the things we wish to store inside our hippocampi. Before Memories, my friends and I used Snapchat casually, taking photos of things we liked looking at but wouldn’t mind forgetting, like sidewalk flowers and sushi boats and train cars as they tumbled into view. But as we grew older, and the app evolved, we started to use it in more significant ways, recording special moments, like a friend smiling with all her teeth as she enters a surprise party or graduation caps as they’re thrown into the air, dotting the sky. Memories served as a place to store these moments, not in our brains, but on our smartphones. Snapchat helps users clear space in their biological memories by offering a place for them to offload images into cyberspace, and as a result, we have become somewhat reliant on it. I have heard a countless number of Gen Zers say something like, “I don’t know what I’d do if Snapchat disappeared tomorrow. All of my memories from the last four years would be gone.”

In a way, much of modern technology — web browsers, word processors, navigation software — is designed to give users a choice about what to remember, or rather what to forget. This phenomena, the act of storing memories outside of oneself, is not new. As far as we, as a species, know, people have been recording their lived experiences in a shareable format, offloading their memories for millions of years, since the cave paintings of the Paleolithic era to the photo albums and home videos of today, the digital age.

These days, when I open Snapchat and click through my friends’ stories, I am sorting through a time capsule from the late 2010s: I see John before I knew him, and I am dancing my way through a crowded club in Paris with Nikki, and sometimes, I am watching myself through my friends’ eyes and wondering, “Is that really how you saw me?” Most of the stories I see are old, marked with a timestamp that reads something like, “Two years ago today, from memories.” 

Temporal landmarks are new, memorable experiences that we use as personal measurements of time. With pandemic restrictions, such as shelter-in-place orders and business closures, every temporal landmark — the big things, like graduations, and perhaps even more importantly, the little things, like eating lunch with friends — disappeared suddenly. Memory scientists have found that a lack of perceptible change in our day-to-day lives gives way to a feeling of stillness. Pre-pandemic, my life was dynamic, each day tumbling after the next, but when I returned to Miami in the beginning of summer 2020, still early into the pandemic, things felt eerily familiar: It was hurricane season, the grocery store shelves were gathering dust and time felt slowed, like it had felt during Irma. I spent day after day in my sun-filled living room, where I ate every meal and worked and watched TV until its white light burned beneath my eyelids. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the Snaps I see are Memories sent as messages or reposted to one’s Snapchat story, as if I and everyone I know are trying to escape the present and the uncertain future by reliving the past. This time last year, I desperately wanted something, anything, worth remembering to happen to me. I took a few photos — of storm clouds rolling over the Miami canal and my dog stretching in the sun and palm trees swaying in the wind — but those moments don’t feel like distinct memories, they don’t feel like anything. Yet I still took them because one of my fears was that I would look back on 2020 as the year that I tried to hold time, like water, between praying hands, but could do nothing to keep it from spilling between my fingers.

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Chasity Hale is the Vol. 259 managing editor of The Grind. She is a senior, studying communication and creative writing. Contact Chasity Hale at chashale ‘at’ stanford.edu.