Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Snapchat: The unbearable ephemeralness of digital self.

Sometimes I wonder how many of the "futurist" gadgets I saw on TV when I was a kid  became real. It's not such an irrational thought, after all (remember the giant electric submarine Captain Nemo used to travel in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?)
I guess some of them -such as Maxwell Smart's shoe phone- were not able to expand our technological frontier, but some others surely did.

Did you ever think you were going to be able to receive a message that will self-destroy 5 seconds after you read it? Well, as it happens to be, in 2011 Stanford University students Evan Spiegel (22) and Bobby Murphy (24) decided to work on a mobile application which allows users to do exactly that without all the downsides of becoming a secret agent. This gadget is called Snapchat.

At first glance, the product launched in Appstore in September 2011 is just another mobile photo sharing application (such as Instagram or Flickr). The difference that makes this app unique and so popular lies in its ephemeralness (such a good word for Scrabble!) Using Snapchat any registered user can take a picture or video, add a caption and send it to its contacts. 1 to 10 seconds after they access to the snap, it will disappear. If the people you sent your snap doesn't open the file after 30 days, it will disappear as well. Unless, they take a screenshot.

If you haven't heard of it, it's probably because you used to watch shows such as Get Smart or Mission Impossible when you were Snapchat is very, very popular among users between 13 and 25 years old. A few months after it was launched, in June 2012, 110 million snaps had been sent through this app. Today, more than 350 million snaps are sent every day. 
The philosophy of Snapchat captures the essence of what appears to be the most valuable feature of this app:
“We believe in sharing authentic moments with friends. It’s not all about fancy vacations, sushi dinners, or beautiful sunsets. Sometimes it’s an inside joke, a silly face, or greetings from a pet fish. 
Sharing those moments should be fun. Communication is more entertaining when it’s with the people who know us best. And we know that no one is better at making us laugh than our friends. 
There is value in the ephemeral. Great conversations are magical. That’s because they are shared, enjoyed, but not saved”
Whatever it is, it is working very well. So good, that Facebook was forced to launch a very similar app called Facebook Poke without the desired results.

But not everything has been a bed of roses for Snapchat. Many voices have raised their concerns about issues related to privacy and other values such as the protection of children. In did, the fact that this app is extremely popular among young users, and the growing speculations about the convenience of this tool for safe and discrete sexting, has alerted many concerned parents.
"Combining cameras; young people; and secret, self destructing messages could only mean trouble", said Slate's blogger Farhad Manjoo.
Even when their founders are aware and open about the risk of abuse from some of their users, this doesn't seem to diminish the pace which they want to maintain for the expansion of the company.
“We are not advertising ourselves as a secure platform” Mr. Spiegel said to the New York Times. “It’s a communication platform. It’s not our job to police the world or Snapchat of jerks.”
There have also been speculations about how snaps are stored and when and how they are deleted, and even some complaints about leaks on the system that allow users to save and share the information supposedly deleted. If you pay attention, even the product description indicates that "even though Snaps are deleted from our servers after they are viewed, we cannot prevent the recipients from capturing and saving the message by taking a screenshot or using an image capture device"

I any case Snapchat is, without any doubt, becoming one of the big players in the world of social media. And whether us want to be part of it or not, if we look carefully, it can tell us very much about the means a large portion of urban young people is using to interact.

So keep calm and say cheese!

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