How big is your digital footprint? Think beyond the blog posts and Amazon reviews, social media status updates and Reddit comments. Your role in the digital world is more than the songs you download on iTunes, the movies you watch on Netflix and the photos you upload on Instagram. Your digital mitochondria are fueled by the habits you've developed since you got your first computer or feature phone.
If you're anything like me, it pained you to toss all the AOL chats you saved from college. You may dread upgrading your phone over fears of losing all those text messages or push SMS notifications. When you think about the amount of stuff stored or otherwise archived on our digital devices and on the interwebs, it's amazing more of us haven't been blackmailed. It's enough to make you think that not everything we do is worth its half-life.
We Were Warned
In the beginning, we were all warned about the perils of the Internet, social media, smart technology, [insert new technology platform here]. For some, it was a concern about security or privacy. For others it was a plea for common decency. For as much as we fought back, citing principles of an open web and a call for transparency, part of us hates to admit that things may have gone awry. If it's not sexting, it's cyberbullying. Employers are now browsing social media profiles as a part of job searches. Company documents are being leaked, accessed because someone failed to protect them.
But why should the misdeeds of others deny us the extraordinary experiences that digital technology has to offer? From being able to broadcast real-time information about breaking news, to watching inspirational Ted Talks, not to mention connecting people from around the world with the click of a button or swipe of the finger, digital media — in all its forms — is pretty damn impressive. So what if there was a way to make the stuff worth sharing available, while making it so that the stuff that isn't becomes ephemeral?
Snapchat, for example, lets users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their Snaps (ranging from 1-10 seconds), after which they will be hidden from the recipient's device and deleted from Snapchat's servers. And it's worth billions. And it's popular with the teenagers. And it's changing the way people share photos and videos — saving us, the average internet user, from seeing any of it, ever.
I recently sat down to talk with Steve Chung, the CEO and founder of Frankly, a texting app that "empowers people to speak freely and anonymously, allowing them to be their unedited self." At first, I didn't see the need for a short-lived texting app. What am I texting that is so secretive anyway? But throughout the course of our conversation, Chung showed me a new perspective through which to understand the future of ephemeral communications.
Frankly users can engage in one-on-one conversations or enter group chats with multiple users. Group chats are, by default, anonymous so only the user will know who is in a group room, but not who is saying anything. A message is deleted permanently once all intended recipients have read the message and the 10-second timer has counted down for all intended recipients.
The sender of the message clicks the “X” button next to the message to un-send it, or any or all intended recipients log out of the application or leave the chat room in which the message was sent. Additionally, Frankly does not save or read any communications sent between users — in fact no information, other than the basic information needed to set up the account, is collected and deleted from the server altogether when the user deletes it.
In Frankly, messages appear scrambled until you swipe. Once uncovered, they are deleted after 10 seconds.
Speaking with Chung, it's very clear he is not some drive-by serial entrepreneur. He is committed to Frankly and wholly believes in its value and impact in the digital world. Chung says most of our communication doesn't need to be shared, never mind stored in the public sphere. Yet, it's not as if he thinks that users can't leverage digital media to communicate off the grid. Rather, he'd like to help change the paradigm of sharing so that "delete is the default" not just an option that's not easy for users to choose.
Can Ephemeral Apps Simply Your Digital Life?
It's very interesting to consider. What if on every platform through which you engaged, your message was slated to survive only mere seconds, rather than your lifetime? What messages would you consider worth saving forever and which would be worth losing forever? Suddenly that #nomnomnom photo doesn't seem so poignant anymore. When delete is the default, it will be interesting to see what survives.
On the other hand, will ephemeral apps make it easier for us to be stupid? Some may say it makes it much easier to cheat or be sneaky in general without getting caught. While this may be, technology doesn't make us anything -- it just amplifies who were already are. Chances are, you were already being sneaky -- the right app just simplified things.
And it's possible that ephemeral apps ilke Snapchat and Frankly can simplify the amount of digital media you're hoarding. Do you really need to keep all those text messages? How often do you go back to either find information that you couldn't find elsewhere or reminisce about text messages of yonder? If you think about all the digital stuff clogging up our lives, minimizing just a bit of it could make a difference.
Ephemeral apps may be just a trend, but they could also be shaping the future of social and digital communications. While not everything we say, upload or create is worth saving, being able to do away with the things we'd rather not have hang around could make it easier to find and focus on the things worth our time and energy. And that, is why these apps are worth billions.
Title image by Darren Whittingham (Shutterstock).