By Anne Collier
Snapchat, the little app that came out of nowhere – well, Stanford University, but launched with no media fanfare by a couple of students whose service now supports 50 million snaps a day – has been joined by a similar “ephemeral messaging” app by Facebook: Poke. But now that perishable photo-sharing (the photos disappear in 10 seconds or less) is a trend, let’s look at what’s really interesting, here. Of course, what’s really interesting is subjective, so I’ll qualify that by saying what’s really interesting to me. And that would be two things: what young users like about it and the “myth” that has grown up around it among adults (TechCrunch’s word – see below).
A user’s perspective
First: what young users seem to like about this new form of socializing (it’s not just photo-sharing and it’s not just communication, and definitely more than texting). In the Yale Daily News, student and commentary writer Chloe Drimal calls it “a culture” and suggests that sharing photos that are here and then gone in seconds is humanizing – less about performance or posturing and more about just sharing. Snapchat, she says, “took technology backwards a bit, bringing us a little closer to what real human interaction is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a memory, not something tangible. A conversation with a friend at [a gathering] is not transcribed and then published on the Internet, searchable by future job prospects. It is simply left as a memory. And when we retell the story tomorrow, we might misquote our friend or forget some details — but that’s OK. That’s what human interaction is about.… By taking out the forever part of a picture or text, more people want to share. They aren’t afraid to put themselves out there, to send an ugly picture that may turn someone off or a beautiful picture that may seem narcissistic. They know it will eventually disappear…. Snapchat is … fun without the terrifying permanence of the rest of our technology.” It has been a while since I’ve seen someone (who’s not a tech blogger or total gadget head) wax rhapsodic about a technology – since 2008, in fact, when I read a wonderful New York Times Magazine article about the culture change that a new service called Twitter represented (see “A digital return to village life.”)
Probably not just about sexting
But then there’s the second interesting thing about perishable photo-messaging: what adults think it’s all about. And that would be sexting. TechCrunch looked into how that came about. “It started with an assumption, really.” Nine months after Snapchat launched, the tech news media finally decided it was a story and “the New York Times’s Nick Bilton whipped out all this cute PEW research on sexting in adults and teens, and referenced ‘suggestive’ marketing materials and even pointed out the app’s ‘mild sexual content or nudity’ warning. From that moment on … Snapchat was branded a sexting app.” So, TechCrunch continued, being late to jump on the story “and of a different generation than the majority of the app’s users, many members of the media jumped on the click-happy sexting story instead of the truth.”
We can’t yet know what “the truth” is about Snapchat use because the users’ photos are as perishable on the companies’ servers as they are on users’ phones (the company says it doesn’t look at or store any images) and because there’s no independent research yet (Snapchat’s CEO told the San Francisco Chronicle that you can’t just upload photos to Shapchat, they’re literally snapped spontaneously, and 80% of the snaps on the “are taken during the day,” suggesting they’re more likely not to be sexually related). But why did that sexting label so quickly stick? Why do we adults always go to worst-case scenarios where kids’ use of tech is concerned?
Enter the competition
One note about Facebook’s Poke: Photos on this service are a teeny bit less perishable – Facebook stores them for two days – but there’s a safety element to this. It’s Facebook’s abuse-reporting system. That could be good or bad, depending on the user, but some users will like knowing it’s there. According to another TechCrunch piece, FB stores Pokes “for two days, so if anyone reports you for offending them … it can see if the accusations are true.” TechCrunch further explains that “Pokes are encrypted, and Facebook deletes the encryption keys two days after they’re read so they’re unreadable. Key backups are destroyed within 90 days, making a poke completely inaccessible,” and Facebook told TechCrunch that “we are working to significantly reduce that period over the next several weeks as we verify the stability of the Poke deletion system.”
An unrelated but important safety caveat for ephemeral messaging users: Don’t develop a false sense of security that all photos are gone once they disappear from phones and servers. Users can always grab screenshots and store or share them outside the apps themselves – a capability of the phones being used, not the apps, and so beyond the app services’ (and users’) control. At least both Snapchat and Facebook notify users when their photos have been grabbed as screenshots, so users can talk about limiting photos’ exposure. This is where everybody hopes only real friends are involved. [Here’s a comparison chart of Snapchat and Poke features at TechCrunch.]
As for that question of why reporters and other adults are so quick to buy into worst-case scenarios, I hope they’re not parents. If we have concerns, better to talk with teens with an open mind to find out if and how they use particular technologies, rather than extrapolate from the headlines what their experiences are (and there are millions of more age-appropriate apps for younger kids’ phones). [Here’s my last post about Snapchat.]