A popular app that destroys messages and media may have significant implications for the future of communications, reports Felix Gillette in Bloomberg Businessweek (2/11/13). The app is called Snapchat, and it automatically destroys smartphone images sent within ten seconds of their delivery. It is wildly popular, ranking as the “second-most popular free photo and video app for the iPhone in early February. The appeal, apparently is just pure fun — you can send a friend a goofy picture without worrying that it will live forever on their device, or anywhere beyond that.
Beneath the happy-go-lucky exterior, however, the technology also speaks to growing concerns about the afterlife of anything and everything sent or posted online. Snapchat’s developers, Stanford University frat brothers Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, say they were inspired by “anguished stories they’d heard over the years about people scrambling to delete or de-tag unflattering photos before the snapshots circulated on social networks and appeared on search results forever.” Similar technologies could be developed specifically for people “worried about their social media footprints.”
Currently, “the default setting for almost everything people share online is that it will live for eternity in the cloud,” but in the future, users may be able to indicate “expiration dates.” A company called Drop.io created such a feature but was subsequently acquired, and shut down, by Facebook. A free app called Wickr, “allows users to send each other an array of impermanent media,” with customized, self-destructing time limits. Wickr co-founder Nico Sell says the destruction is absolute. “To make something self-destruct for real is very difficult,” she says. “I would say Snapchat offers only the illusion of self-destruction … Ephemeral data,” she adds, “is the future.”