Meatspace, A World Of Animated Gifs, Human Robots And The Ephemerality Of Snapchat-Like Apps

Meatspace, an addictive new web service and mobile app is part Snapchat, part Twitter and part animated gifs. It works like this: You write an update in 250 characters or less and then pose for the camera on your computer or phone. The service then records and makes a two-second animated loop.

Meatspace shifts the conversation into a different space than a conventional chat service, news feed or shared video stream. Instead, it’s an ephemeral app, similar to Snapchat or Blink. There is no archiving as with Twitter or an enterprise platform like Yammer. Updates disappear after ten minutes. There is no unique URL — the updates just go away like most conversations do when people talk over a beer or cup of coffee. Like the conversation you might have with a friend over dinner, the memories are of the highlights you recall and person’s expressions.


But more so, Meatspace is a reflection of a time that has changed our perceptions about who we are and how we interact. It’s a concept that dates back to the 1990s and put in context by William Gibson with Neuromancer, his famous science fiction novel that often used the term “meat” as a way to describe the physical world as in this excerpt that a commenter on MetaFilter posted in 2005:

Strapped to a bed in a Memphis hotel, his talent burning out micron by micron, he hallucinated for thirty hours. The damage was minute, subtle, and utterly effective. For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace,

it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.

It’s arguable that Meatspace is about human robots and the ephemeral world we live in. It serves as a one-channel community. People can create their own Meatspace apps if they wish as the code is all available on GitHub. One of the “bros” showed one today that plays off The Brady Bunch, the 1970s TV series.  Regulars are given names by the community that all end in “bro,” for whoever they are — man, woman or whatever. For example, I have been named “tcbro.”

Meatspace has an API that people can use to create bots that post animated gifs. I’ve seen Godzilla doing a body slam and scenes from Star Trek. These are people sending likenesses of themselves through automatic calls to the service. It is their identity personified in Godzilla. That is definitely a signal of a new “meatspace,” world. The persona is represented in the gif. With the text, it creates an identity for the individual with the help of machines that deliver this character.

But perhaps most of all, there’s something about animated gifs and realtime that is also just fun, says Jen Fong-Adwent, a senior application engineer for Mozilla, who developed Meatspace. You can make a funny face, roll your chair back and just generally be goofy when making the gifs. The gifs also serve a purpose. They help establish a certain level of accountability and create a sense of community. The regulars get to know each other in a different way than a text-only chat. A Twitter feed is different, too, as the updates stream by with only the person’s image, which only changes if they update their profile.

Meatspace also has a mute button which allows people to ignore the trolls or those they just don’t want to get updates from. When someone gets muted they also don’t get any attention and eventually go away.

But inversely, there is also the lack of programmed identity that comes with Meatspace. There are no user names or passwords. People can join in or just hang out and watch the interactions. It’s not like Yammer or an enterprise social network that has all varieties of ways to archive the data. User names are needed for archives so the system can associate the information with the individual.

The quality of the conversation and the fear of missing out makes Meatspace what it is, says John Edgar, chief technology evangelist for Digital Ocean, which hosts Meatspace.

“it’s like an IRC 2.0,” Edgar said in an email, referring to Internet Relay Chat. “As there are no nick names and the messages are ephemeral, you’re forced to be fully bought in during your session.”

Meatspace represents a new genre of ephemeral apps that are part of a rising cultural shift that is in response to theories Douglas Rushkoff proposes in “Present Shock,” said Chris Dancy, in an email interview. Dancy works in the office of the CTO at BMC Software. I’ve come to known Chris through stories I have written and have started co-hosting Mindful Cyborgs, a podcast he started with Wired writer and TechCrunch columnist Klint Finley.

Dancy, who speaks around the world about the rise of ephemeral knowledge and the concepts of data exhaust, is known for the full quantification of the data he creates. He has studied the topic and how it relates to ownership, identity and the shift away from sharing moments to what he calls “emphasizing escape velocity.”  We are saturated in the media which creates a need for people to experience something that is unsharable. It’s an escape clearly evident of a shift away from ownership. Developers, for example, don’t own their servers. They use Amazon Web Services or a service like Digital Ocean, which Meatspace uses.

Services like Airbnb and Uber put people into a post-sharing kind of mind, Dancy said.

Media is not owned or created but fleeting and temporary like the services we consume.

We buy things literally a touch of a finger from iTunes, never hold our purchases and then share them with people we have never met.

While many speculate that security is a sound reason for the shift, ultimately, apps like snapchat with their recent release are building in versions that actually reverse the tide in the ability to save off the media.

The ephemeral age will be defined by what social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson calls the “Liquid Self”.  Identity in 2014 will be the temporary state we take in our moment by moment temporary services and post identity narrative.

These kinds of conversations are popping up on Meatspace. it attracts the alpha-geeks which points to why this concept of sharing, escape and rejection of ownership is emitting powerful signals that will force any number of questions about how we exist in the meatspace this new year and beyond.

(Feature image via Flickr)