Over at Businessweek, Felix Gillette wrote a fascinating piece exploring the topic of digital permanence. It’s part of a new discussion that’s arisen in response to Snapchat, the app that sends self-destructing photos to friends. Despite its initial pigeonholing as a sexting app, Snapchat is really taking off for day-to-day (G-rated) communications.
Why? We’ve explored the topic in our post on Facebook’s Snapchat clone, Poke. Basically, the web was created with archiving in mind, and even Google was built originally as a citation service. Now that it’s part of every moment of our waking life, people don’t want everything they say on or through the Internet going on the record forever. As Gillette explains:
At the moment, the default setting for almost everything people share online is that it will live for eternity in the cloud. In Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a lawyer and a professor at the University of Oxford, argues that this inevitably creates problems for individuals and societies that need the ability to forget in order to move forward. A perfect memory, he writes, can be paralyzing, trapping people in the past and discouraging them from trying new challenges.
Mayer-Schönberger argues that all information created online should come with customizable expiration dates. Not every piece of data would have to expire after a few seconds as photos on Snapchat do. The key, says Mayer-Schönberger, is to include some form of a self-destruct button in everything created online and to give consumers the power to tinker with the settings from the outset.
Snapchat is not the first company to experiment with the concept of sharing impermanent media with friends. While researching his book, Mayer-Schönberger says he interviewed the executives of a startup file-sharing company called Drop.io, founded in New York in 2007. Among other features, Drop.io included an easy way for users to specify how long their shared files would last before being destroyed. The founders were surprised, they told Mayer-Schönberger, by how popular the expiration dates were with customers.
In another interesting piece of the article, we see that danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, studied a teenage girl who actually devised her own method to counteract her friends’ jibes on her historical Facebook posts.
Rather than abstaining from Facebook altogether, the teen adopted another method of self-protection. Every day she would go about her normal business on Facebook—writing status updates, sharing pictures, commenting on her friends’ posts. And then every night she would go back and delete everything she’d just created. The goal was to scrub her Facebook wall clean. Limiting the past, she reasoned, would limit the future drama. "She would try to keep things as ephemeral as possible," says Boyd. "She called it the process of ‘white-walling.’
Technically speaking, it would be relatively easy for the Facebooks of the world to acknowledge this trend, and simply add self-destructing posts to their feed. But to do so without fundamentally overhauling the experience of Facebook would be nearly impossible. (What happens when you share this post? Where would all of my old likes go? And would users have to F5 the site all day to keep up?) Moreover, at the moment, there’s something fairly civilized about my Facebook feed—it’s an ongoing dinner party that I can show up casually late to, grab a plate, and then leave without apologies. Following Snapchat-ification, what would this dinner party look like? I imagine the mixed stench of junk you find in a mall food court, filled with silly faces, fart noises, and anti-gay rants. You want to know a reason that YouTube comments are so shamefully bad? Nobody has to visit a YouTube thread twice.
There’s also a lot of value in historical data for social media companies—your information allows them to be in business just as much, if not more than, your pageviews. Assuming that all of this information truly self-destructs, where does their deep data go? Would they lose it, or would these companies just get to keep everything forever anyway—while it’s simply all of us in the cheap seats who never get a glimpse of our past again?
[Image: Beach via Shutterstock]