As we and others have reported, Snapchat is now worth close to $1 billion based on its latest round of funding, a valuation that baffles some and no doubt irritates others. After all, it’s just an app for sharing photos and videos that are programmed to disappear after a certain amount of time. Why has that proven to be so interesting, to the point where the growth of Snapchat’s user base rivals that of Instagram in its early days? Maybe we should be asking instead why more of our social content doesn’t do the same thing.
Before anyone rushes to point out that Snapchat pictures and videos don’t really disappear after their brief lifespan is up, it’s true that there are ways to save the content if you really want to: not only can you take a screenshot of the image with your phone with a little bit of work (something that used to trigger an alert on iPhones but may no longer do so with the latest version of Apple’s iOS, as my colleague Erica Ogg points out) but you can also in some cases recover deleted photos and videos from a device.
Why is all our activity so permanent?
All that said, however, Snapchat content comes as close to being deleted as anything we do on social networks or even on our phones. And there is clearly a massive interest in doing this, to the point where the service says that users are now sending more than 200 million pieces of content a day.
In a recent blog post on the idea of “disposable media,” Net Jacobsson — an early Facebook staffer who now invests in and advises technology startups — raised an interesting point about the permanence of much of our social-media behavior, which is stored and indexed and preserved by the networks we use. Having our ephemeral conversations and updates treated this way is unlike the way we treat virtually every other form of human communication:
“When you sit and chat with a couple of friends at a cafe, restaurant or bar etc, there is no permanent record of what you say. True, your friends might be witnesses to what you say, perhaps even passersby. At most, bits and pieces of the conversation might turn in to gossip and hearsay but there is where it stops. There’s no permanent record. On social networks this is obviously not true. Anything you express or write will have a permanent record.”
The idea that nothing is ever forgotten on the internet has become a truism — something we ruefully refer to whenever we read about someone who has lost a job because of a photo they posted of their youthful indiscretions, or been disciplined because of a remark on social media. And the permanence of that information was just reinforced by a legal opinion from an advisor to the European Court of Justice, who said Google should not have to remove content because of a so-called “right to be forgotten.”
A growing desire for impermanence
Jacobsson says he has suggested to both Twitter and Facebook that they implement some kind of similar feature (Facebook actually launched an app called Poke that was a virtual copy of Snapchat, but it hasn’t really taken off with many users). And as I argued in an earlier post about Snapchat, I think he is right that much of the appeal of the service comes from the fact that there is so little impermanence in our online lives — and even less now that the NSA is storing our emails and phone calls.
“It seems like in this age of over exposure of our private lives, perhaps people are getting weary about the long trail of record left behind of something that was supposed to be private and intimate from the outset? Will this give rise to a sea of new applications and features? Perhaps we are seeing the rise of disposable media?”
Although Jacobsson doesn’t mention it, the most compelling reason why many services likely haven’t implemented the same kind of disposable approach is that they rely — at least to some extent — on mining the information about the content and activity of their users to do things like serve up advertising (something that probably won’t work well in an environment like Snapchat’s).
As the old saying goes, if you aren’t paying for the product then you are the product. And while allowing your content and activity to disappear may be in your interests as a user, it’s not really in the network’s interest.