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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