Browsing messaging apps, I am reminded of one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. In the novel, people have the potential to live forever, through the use of cyborg bodies that they upload their consciousness into. Every single moment of every human’s life is recorded for recovery later. People can choose to turn off this high-fidelity recording, or “hard memory,” in favor of organic “soft memory” that fades over time.

Sci-fi writers often make spot technology predictions, such as the telescreens in George Orwell’s 1984 or Arthur Clarke’s prediction of something similar to the iPad in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think Morgan is onto something and I think we are seeing it now with the rise of ephemeral messaging, where digital messages and images are deleted shortly after they are read. As technology changes and becomes more human focused, messaging apps start to imitate life.

Messages and images that live on can cause problems for people, either when they send an impulsive message or picture they wish they hadn’t, or when someone reads more into a message than is there or takes the message out of context. How many times has someone warned you that “once it’s on the Internet, it’s there forever”?

Recreating Spontaneity with Snapchat

Snapchat was one of the first messaging platforms to focus on ephemeral messaging. Once you open a Snapchat message, a timer starts. After a few moments, the message will delete automatically, ensuring that any message you send won’t come back to haunt you 10 years down the road when you’re looking for a job. The program even limits users’ abilities to take screenshots of messages.

Like most social media services, Snapchat was started on a college campus. Fitting given that the likelihood of sending a message you regret is probably a lot higher for the college-aged demographic. College students were quick to start using Snapchat, thanks to the program’s preset deleting capabilities, and soon it went mainstream.

By the end of 2013, Snapchat reported that users were sending approximately 350 million messages per day. The platform is so popular that the company actually turned down a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook.

Other Players in the Game

Although ephemeral messaging is still a bit of a novelty, many companies are jumping on board to create their own offerings that let users control the permanence of their messages. For example, Frankly, like Snapchat, allows you to default to deleting messages and gives you the option to take back messages after you’ve sent them. WeChat lets you recall messages you’ve sent in the last two minutes, making those message disappear from your screen as well as the screen you sent it to.

Even established players are incorporating this functionality into their offerings. In the past few weeks, Path spun out messaging as a separate app, Path Talk, in which all messages delete by default after 24 hours. Shortly thereafter, Facebook released a new app, Slingshot, targeted at this market after Poke failed to get market traction. There are no hard numbers yet, because this platform is very new, but it is expected to be major competition for Snapchat.

Giving Users Control

One thing that most users of ephemeral messaging platforms have in common is the desire for control over their messages. They want the option to permanently delete or permanently save their messages. It’s not that people want to delete all their messages. It’s that they want the option of deleting their messages if they want to.

Take a study done by the ephemeral messaging service, Blink. Kevin Stevens, the company’s CEO, reports that many of the users of that service go back and forth between keeping messages and setting them to delete. Another CEO, Nico Sell of the Wickr app, has noticed the same thing, with most users using a range of options, from keeping messages permanently to deleting them almost as soon as they’re read.

Ephemeral messaging platforms give control back to the users. They get to decide how long they keep a message or whether they keep a message at all. Messaging programs that give users this control are growing in popularity, because people want to decide what to do with their own messages, not let a company decide for them.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that everything you write in an ephemeral platform can’t be saved. For example, an app called Snap Save allows users to keep messages for longer than the standard 6 seconds. Sometimes, even using a standard screenshot is enough to hold onto a message forever. But so far, programs like Snapchat are the best option for having a conversation online that is similar to a conversation in person.

From Communication to Conversation

In a world where all of our online actions can be recorded, the ability to have a regular conversation digitally is a refreshing change. If you go out for coffee with a friend, you don’t need to worry that everything you say is being recorded for all time. Ephemeral messaging tries to recreate that natural conversation feeling.

Much like the cyborgs in Altered Carbon, ephemeral messaging gives people control of their own digital memories. They can let those memories fade away, or they can keep them forever. Ephemeral messaging gives control to the person with the most right to that control. In ephemeral messaging, the creator of the message gets to decide how long that message exists.

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