If you are following the battle of the short messaging systems, you might think it is a one-dimensional contest between the systems that maintain your chat history for all time – like Twitter and Facebook – and the so-called disappearing messengers – like Snapchat – where messages vanish after being read.
Each new application stakes out a place somewhere along this timeline between zero and infinity. Chat systems rush to add ephemeral features, and email systems for the enterprise add more features around mail expiration dates and “information lifecycle management.” The question remains whether retention time is the real issue here.
Most of the supposed uses for disappearing communication are prurient at best. Snapchat’s popularity is based on the appeal among teens to share illicit photos that they don’t want to get caught sharing. Mark Cuban famously funded CyberDust after the SEC scoured his social media records looking for signs of insider trading.
None of these companies have yet to make an argument that their products provide any social good. As the founders of the once high-flying, but now-defunct Secret learned, the lack of social good is fatal to mainstream acceptance.
Meanwhile, those who think ephemeral messaging will protect their questionably illegal activities, or worry that such products will enable illegal activities, are also missing the boat. Consider the most ephemeral messaging of all: the telephone call.
It is consumed in real time, as it is created. Any online communication has the same limitation where if your device is talking, someone else can listen in. The Bin Ladens of the world are using couriers, not Snapchat, despite what the British Parliament might say.
Much of the positive desire for ephemeral messaging comes from the ease at which conversations in different contexts can be aggregated. Comments made on a personal message board in support of gay rights can be traced to a popular teacher at a Catholic school, who is then out of a job for his beliefs. The solution is not to make these messages disappear, but to stop storing so much identity in the first place.
This desire for these apps comes from the unnatural state of current online social communication. In real life, all communication happens within a context and people only have a limited identity in that context.
When I am teaching my class, I use my teacher qualifications. When I am reviewing a restaurant, I want to share the fact that I dine out frequently. When I am talking politics, it is relevant to know if I am liberal or conservative. What mainstream social networks lack is the ability to utilize only the relevant subset of your identity in online communications.
Outside of celebrities and other brands, there is little benefit from being fully identified in every conversation. If I am sharing tech gossip, it is much more useful for my audience to know that I am a high-tech CEO, rather than to know my actual name and entire conversation history.
When I am reviewing a recent Amazon delivery, my professional background is irrelevant. The ideal way to handle the retention of personally identifiable information is to simply not collect it in the first place.
Therefore, if aggregating identity is not useful, we are left wondering why all social networks put so much emphasis on this. It is because these networks are not in the business of enabling effective communication. Their actual business is in collecting users’ personal information and selling it to the highest bidder. Their advertisers are their customers, not the people who use their products.
Luckily, alternative social platforms are starting to emerge and showing that they do not need to compile aggregated identities into lists of friends or followers in order to get relevant information. Using a verified subset of facts, users can be more powerful than if they were fully identified.