Snapchat and our never-ending quest for impermanence

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about an application called Snapchat, both because of its phenomenal growth rate and because Facebook (s fb) has quickly copied its functionality with its own app, known as Poke. The dominant feature of both apps is that the photos and video clips that users can share with friends have a built-in self-destruct — in other words, they disappear (more or less) after a pre-determined number of seconds. While the conventional wisdom is that these apps are designed primarily for “sexting” between teenagers, I think they are part of a much larger phenomenon: namely, an almost unspoken desire for impermanence — in retaliation for the way that most of our online behavior seems destined to follow us around for the rest of our lives.

I don’t really have any proof of this, other than the growing popularity of such apps — as well as anecdotal evidence from discussions with a number of young friends and family members about the impact that Facebook in particular and the web in general (YouTube, blogs, etc.) have had on their lives. Whenever the topic of embarrassing photos or Facebook updates comes up, someone will say: “I’m jealous of old people because they didn’t have the internet and Facebook when you were young — you could get away with just about anything.” And for the most part, they are right.

When we swung a pole around and pretended it was a light-saber, the biggest risk was that someone would enter the room and see us, or maybe a friend with a hidden camera might record us. There was no risk that the video would be uploaded to YouTube and viewed more than 25 million times, turning us into an internet phenomenon known as the “Star Wars Kid” — and forcing us to seek psychological therapy because of the ridicule. We didn’t have to scrub our Facebook profiles of late-night debauchery in order to apply for a job, or manage our Twitter timeline during a relationship, or decide who would get control of our Facebook social graph after we split up with our partner.

We all have things we would like to have disappear


Every few weeks, it seems, we see another story about a celebrity who has been caught doing something via a text message or a photo shared on Twitter, or an incident that brings home how complicated privacy is now — like Randi Zuckerberg’s photo of her family reacting to her brother’s new Poke feature, which was inadvertently made public by someone else. In that kind of context, who wouldn’t be attracted to an app like Snapchat or Poke, where one of the main attributes of the content is that it is impermanent (although my colleague Eliza Kern has explained that it isn’t really impermanent at all, or at least not as ephemeral as it seems). For a generation whose every move has been chronicled — either by themselves or by someone else — in full public view, what better solution than photos that self-destruct?

In a TechCrunch post on Snapchat, the writer talks about how his younger sister (who is 19) shares totally different photos through the service than she would with another app like Instagram or even Facebook. But the point is not that she’s sexting — it’s that she no longer cares how her pictures look to others. Using other services like Instagram, the idea is to have a picture that gets shared and favorited as many times as possible, or gets approving comments from other users. The idea behind Snapchat is almost the exact opposite: it doesn’t matter how good it is, because only one person will see it, and even then they will only see it for a matter of seconds.

Developer and entrepreneur Dustin Curtis wrote recently about how this aspect of the service makes it seem much more like conversation — short, ephemeral, etc. — rather than a standard photo-sharing service, and how appealing that is to someone who is used to the relative permanence of Facebook and other services.

“Because it is completely ephemeral – and because the photos are deleted after 1-10 seconds – it’s impossible to use the photos for anything but communication.”

We want permanence for some things but not for others

There have been attempts to bring this same kind of auto-destruct feature to other kinds of content: one that Betaworks founder John Borthwick showed me earlier this year was called Vibe, and the idea was that messages could be shared with two specific restrictions — one was geographical (only share this with people in a specific location) and one was time-based (only share this for a certain length of time). It got a lot of use during the Occupy Wall Street movement as a way of co-ordinating activity among protesters, Borthwick said. Some email services have also tried to offer a time-limited function, so that messages would self-destruct after a certain period.

What’s interesting about this desire for impermanence is that there also seems to be a movement towards recapturing our past in some ways, whether it’s services like Timehop or Momento (which track your social activity and then remind you of things that happened a year ago) or through an archive of our tweets, which Twitter just started providing to users recently. If any service was designed to be ephemeral, or to emphasize the fact that social behavior is a stream, it’s Twitter — and yet now the archetypal impermanent network is offering a permanent record.

In some ways, this is an eternal tension that plays itself out online: we want some things to be as impermanent as possible (especially our mistakes, or the things we don’t want the government or Google to see), but at the same time we want to keep certain things around so that we can recapture the treasured moment when we took a photo, or got a message from a loved one. Maybe we need a setting that applies to all our online content — a dial that we can turn from “self-destruct in 10 seconds” to “keep in my private archive forever.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Cotidad and IloveJB123