It was a great man, Ferris Bueller to be precise, who once uttered the immortal words “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” So wise and so relevant it seemed to me, as I reflected upon the phenomenon that is Snapchat. Last month, less than 2 years after launch, Snapchat raised $60m in funding on the basis of a $800m valuation from prominent VC’s. Dennis Phelps of Institutional Venture Partners gushed emphatically “The funding round was “one of the most competitive financings we have been a part of in years”. Despite the fact that they are yet to make a single dollar from advertising or charging users.
In many ways Snapchat embodies the very essence of the ephemeral but I couldn’t help wondering if it might be a signifier of a broader trend unfolding, something more fundamental and profound. As a generation of “digital natives” grow up and look to their future, and the whole world considers the repercussions of Edward Snowden’s revelations, it appears that we are collectively reappraising our engagement with the digital world. We grow increasingly aware of our ever deepening reliance on networked technologies, the blurring of public and private space, and the changing nature of our relationships with others, and we are beginning to explore new strategies to respond.
The Snapchat story
The genesis of Snapchat is shrouded in claim, counter-claim and litigation, and comes complete with its own Winklevoss Twin (singular sadly). In 2011 Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy took their Stamford University classmate Reggie Brown’s idea for a self-destructing messaging service and launched the app in September 2011 that year. Since launch the user base has grown at a staggering pace despite many detractors trying to write it off as a novelty app for creative sexters. Take one look at the numbers its obvious that there’s more to it than that. Snapchat users, particularly teenagers and college kids, now share over 150 million pictures every single day, more than four times Instagram’s daily shares.
Building the Ephemeranet
What’s particularly interesting is that Snapchat’s unique appeal comes from restricting, rather than enabling the intrinsic connectivity of the web. It lets people share experiences with friends, but it does so in a way that is time-bound and impermanent. Nothing you send is stored, and none is searchable. A generation of users who’ve grown up immersed in the social web are beginning to realise that their intimate experiences are not only available to their friends. They are also open to would-be employers, their parents, even that girl they may want to marry someday. According to Evan Spiegel the increasing pressure on them to manage their idealized online identity has “taken all of the fun out of communicating”. In glorious contrast, the transient and ephemeral nature of Snapchat provides a more spontaneous, less controlled or contrived way of communicating. By simplifying a security process enough to the point that anybody can use it Snapchat has created a market for privacy protecting ephemeral communication, an opportunity investment money will help them exploit further.
Potluck vs Performance anxiety
In July Josh Miller and the team behind Branch launched their new platform Potluck. Potluck, though very different to Snapchat, bears comparison because it also provides users with an interesting alternative to the performance anxiety of mass social interaction.
Potluck is essentially a link-sharing network built on top of a users’ social connections from Twitter, Facebook and Gmail. But unlike many of today’s social networks the focus is not on having users craft an online persona, but rather on the content being shared. Links shared on Potluck aren’t accompanied by people’s names or avatars, only the topic or name of the link, and the number of your friends who are talking about it. Instead of worrying about how popular your posts are, or how interesting you look because of what you share, you can focus on more genuine conversations around the subjects that really matter to you. The performance anxiety is gone, making it more accessible for everyone. As Miller explains “The whole reason we took the time to even focus on Potluck, is because we really do want to empower the people who are not having conversations to have conversations.”
Free to browse anonymously
If Edward Snowden and his revelations about the NSA’s PRISM programme have taught us anything (other than to beware of transit in Moscow airport) it is that our digital click-stream is an open book ready to be read by anyone with the computing power and inclination to sift through the meta-data.
The involvement of Microsoft, Yahoo and Google in the US spying programme has given an unexpected boost to lesser know search rival DuckDuckGo whose search requests have almost doubled to over 3million a day in the last month alone. DuckDuckGo provides ‘private’ internet searches which means that it does not track users in the same way that the big listed above do. It does serve Google-like ads, but without the customisation.
As founder Gabriel Weinberg explained, DuckDuckGo chose not to store search data because it reveals so much about us. Search data, he says, “is arguably the most personal data people are entering into anything. You’re typing in your problems, your desires. It’s not the same as things you post publicly on a social network.” Having decided that searching is intimately personal, he deduced, rather presciently that governments would want to get hold of search data. “I looked at the search fiascos such as the 2006 AOL data release, and decided that government requests were real and would be inevitable, and that search engines and content companies would be handing over that data [to government] in increasing amounts.”
Whilst DuckDuckGo’s numbers are hardly going to keep Googlers up at night this trend is illustrative of the growing recognition of the need to take control of the public availability of our browsing histories. Whilst DuckDuckGo’s entire premise is predicated on anonymity, “Incognito browsing” is of course a standard feature in Chrome, and similar features have since been adopted by Firefox and IE. Providing anonymous browsing may seem like a counterintuitive move for Google given their business model, but by giving users control over their anonymity on the most sensitive sites these features are more likely to reduce cookie deletion rates, thereby increasing the ability to target ads, thereby increasing revenues.
Military grade encryption from the App store
For those wanting the next level of privacy look no further than Wickr, created by Nico Sell, security expert and long-time organiser of Hacker convention Defcon. Wickr is a serious security-focused app that uses “military-grade” encryption to send text, video, voice, and document files that can self-destruct after a given period of time.
Hospitals and law enforcement have expressed interest in a similarly functioning Android app, Gryphn. Encryption legend Phil Zimmerman, inventor of Pretty Good Privacy or PGP, an encryption system so powerful that its distribution was once classified as arms dealing by the US government, is also developing an exciting and powerful suite of communication apps through his company Silent Circle. They are not for “average” users, but they will provide massive improvements in security for business and serious individuals who are looking for it.
So what does it all mean?
“Life is once, forever and new all the time” ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson
The Web 2.0 evangelists proselytised the benefits of a new era where we are all publishers. The Social Web enabled us to harness not just the wisdom of the crowd but the wisdom of our friends. Every moment, every memory of our lives effortlessly shared through our ‘feeds’ creating a permanent, public, searchable and socially verified record of our lives. And why? Because we could. But sometimes “Because we could” isn’t reason enough. Without serendipity we grow stale and predictable. Without spontaneity we deny the authenticity of our human response. Without our privacy where is there space for intimacy or dissent?
Once opened this Pandora’s box cannot simply be closed, nor would we want it to be. But there is an alternative. Snapchat’s self-destructing pictures are fun, but they are more than that. They are fleeting glimpse of what we crave, the means to put us back in control. Providing us with a most important ability in this networked age, the means to disconnect.