Jacob Robbins first created a self-destructing message service for security reasons. He wanted to send someone a password but felt uncomfortable doing so through email. But when the site he called Burn Note launched, people mostly talked about how they would send hate mail to their boss or an ex-lover.
"I didn’t make it clear that it’s just ephemeral messaging, it’s not anonymous ephemeral messaging," he says. "I think the question everyone asks themselves when they first hear about it is what is the worst use case I can think of for this."
Discussion of Facebook Poke, Snapchat, and other similar apps have taken the same tone. The reason for their popularity, it is assumed, must be sexting. Or exchanging other terrible, horrible things users want nobody else to see. And no doubt, that’s one use case.
But, argues Robbins, there’s another aspect to the experience that often goes unappreciated. The temporary nature of the messages pulls people into the moment.
"When a choice between multiple options is made in a clear and unchangeable way, we become more focused on the task at hand," he says. "It cuts through the mental clutter of multitasking between all the inter-connected apps on our phones and forces us to focus on the contents of the message at hand."
In other words, you like ephemeral messaging for the same reason Alexander the Great burned his boats upon arrival in Persia: When you can’t go back, you’re more motivated to move forward. Go ahead and chat with your coworker while your texting. But space out on Burn Note, and you won’t be able to respond. It’s just like 16th-centry imperialism.
To achieve this effect, however, messages need to actually be private, and the screenshot function on most phones makes this a difficult promise to make. Snapchat, for instance, attempts to safeguard privacy by notifying senders when their messages have been screen-grabbed. But this feature has provided little resistance to a habit of saving temporary messages. Users simply use another phone to take a photo of their own, learn one of several widely disseminated strategies for tricking the app, or just chose not to care that the sender can see they have taken a screenshot of his message.
When Burn Note designed its first mobile apps earlier this year, the startup decided to instead try a visual approach to averting the screen grab—a balancing act between simultaneously hiding the message and making it readable. One feature it tested made messages into a movie of scrolling text, so that only one part of them was visible at once. But testers who looked away for a moment missed portions of the text and, since that’s the point of the app, could not go back to review them.
Another solution involved breaking text into chunks that flashed on the screen one after the other (so instead of "Let’s go to the park for a picnic," the app would read "Let’s go" [two second delay] "to the park" [two second delay] "for a picnic"). "That was sort of engaging, too," says Burn Note founder Jacob Robbins, "but it made people read at a certain speed, and as the conversation went on and on it, became burdensome."
Burn Note eventually decided on a feature it named Spotlight, which creates a window of visibility on just the portion of a message that a user is touching on their phone’s screen. Since the whole message is never visible at one time, it doesn’t make sense in a screenshot. It just looks like a black box with a few words showing through a peephole.
"I think something about the physicality of the spotlight was attractive to people because it allowed for more control," says Ken Meier, who advised the design of the app. "Watching for a readout of the text was really passive and sometimes hard to understand. Spotlight doesn’t seem to have that problem." The physical interaction that Spotlight creates on top of their ensured destruction are enough to create an in-the-moment alternative to texting.
Everything else in Burn Note functions a lot like iChat, which adds ambiance to the argument that there’s a place for it in normal communication.
"It really is just another option in the world of online communication mediums we have," Robbins says. "All the way from the most social—I want to post something about myself on Facebook so everyone sees it—this is just going the opposite way. I want to say something that really is as private as if I were just telling someone in person."
[Image: Burning Paper via Shutterstock]