What was once a unique feature of a fledgling startup company has today taken social media by storm. Ephemeral messages, also called self-destructing messages, are the new gold standard for social media communication. They are everywhere, including Facebook and its many subsidiaries, and soon on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Twitter has rolled out a test in Brazil for a feature called fleets. They are basically tweets that self destruct within 24 hours. Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s product lead said that feature was designed to “address some of the anxieties that hold people back from talking on Twitter.”
Right now, fleets can be viewed by tapping on a person’s profile picture. Reacting to fleets is limited to direct messages. It is not possible to like, retweet or comment on a fleet.
Ephemeral messaging has become a core part of Facebook’s strategy. You need look no further than the redesign of their Messenger app to see it. Stories now have their own tab, ensuring that there is no way you can miss them. Whether you like them or not, Stories are now here to stay.
LinkedIn seemed like the only holdout, but finally the company has relented. Writing for his blog, Pete Davies, Senior Director of Product Management, announced that LinkedIn was testing a stories feature. He said the goal is to meet LinkedIn users “where their voices are.” The feature is still in internal testing, with no confirmation on a rollout.
Whether it will succeed is a big question, as the platform has a long history of trying to appeal to younger users, with little success.
Exploding Popularity of Social Stories
If you think ephemeral messaging isn’t popular, think again. In February 2017, WhatsApp launched Status, its version of Stories. As of November 2018, WhatsApp Status had 450 million daily active users, a huge leap over Snapchat’s 188 million. Facebook Stories hit 500 million daily active users in April 2019, and Instagram hit the same landmark in January 2019.
It’s a trend that just won’t disappear. While Facebook is slowly siphoning away Snapchat’s users, plenty of other apps have also popped up. Dontalk, SpeakOn, Wickr, Confide and Bleep are just some of the many apps available on Android and iOS. More are popping up, trying to wrestle control from the behemoth that is Facebook.
And where the consumers go, there to go the ads. As Stories have exploded in popularity, their high engagement has led more and more advertisers to invest in ephemeral ads. As per Socialbackers data, Instagram saw a 70% YoY increase in ad revenue from Stories in Q4 2019. That equates to about 10% of Facebook’s ad revenue.
The reasons for this explosion are many, but there’s one major factor that towers over all others: consequences.
There’s no conclusive proof that Snapchat’s arrival lead to a boom in sexting, but it is clear that the idea of disappearing messages played a crucial role. With ephemeral messaging, teens could easily send private images, allowing them to fully engage in taboo conversations without having to worry about being found out. Not only did this help avoid having their images plastered all over the internet, it also made it hard for parents to identify unwanted behaviour and step in.
Now the idea has morphed into the larger net. Take a look at Instagram, which was derided for copying Snapchat. However, the arrival of stories has fundamentally changed the way people use the ‘gram. Before Stories, Instagram was known for creating an artificially high bar for what was “insta worthy”. People wouldn’t post images at random, each image was carefully selected and edited. The idea was to show off your best self, not your true self. As a result, users were too intimidated to post most of their pictures, reducing the use of the platform.
Stories removed that pressure. By disappearing after 24 hours, and being limited to a particular group of people (which Instagram calls Close Friends), the app became more about sharing authentic experiences. The platform moved from being about curation to spontaneity. If the ‘gram was about the highlights of your life, Stories were about the moments that made up those highlights.
Before Snapchat, there was a clear philosophy- the internet never forgets. Whether it was MySpace, Facebook or Twitter, you were accountable for all your content. It led to a phase were people were worried about the impact of a being held accountable, not just for jobseekers but also for children.
Kate Eichhorn, in an article for the MIT Technology Review asked: “Are we losing that elusive period between childhood and adulthood—a time that has, at least for the past century, been set aside for people to explore, take risks, and even fail without significant consequences?”
Stories have changed that perception. On the face of it, there’s a belief that the internet can and will forget. It’s why a majority of ephemeral content users are in the age range of 16-34 as per Duncan Kavanagh for the Global Web Index. They are the ones to most likely face consequences for their digital actions, and therefore be the first to change their habits.
Ephemeral on Twitter
Twitter is known to be a bit of a wild west, where people openly share their thoughts and feelings. However, as some people have discovered this comes at a cost. James Gunn, the Hollywood director, was fired from Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 over some old tweets that resurfaced in 2018. He is far from the only one. Here’s an interesting list of people who got fired over their tweets from Business Insider.
Post Gunn’s firing (and subsequent reinstatement), more attention has been drawn to what people post online. In our currently politically-fuelled, hyper-partisan world, every word you say matters, and can have consequences.
Unless you are the President of the United States of course.
What better way to avoid consequences than to have your thoughts erased permanently? Sure, screenshots can still come back to haunt you, but self-destructing messages do provide some level of security.
Combine the platform’s penchant for explosive and often unhinged content with the idea that none of it is permanent, and you have an interesting but dangerous combination. Currently people can be held to account for their words, but what happens when there’s no proof? It becomes harder for recruiters to judge their candidates.
The challenge then for Twitter is to try and ensure fleets live side-by-side with the traditional Twitter timeline. If fleets end up replacing tweets, it could be a huge challenge for everyone. It’s like having a disappearing gun – there’s no way to convict someone then.
The Dangers of Disappearing Content
Ephemeral content is more authentic and edgier, but it does have many downsides. Right now Stories aren’t the de facto mode of communication, but over time as the feature become more central to the experience of a platform that will change.
The lack of accountability is just one issue; it’s not a big deal if hiring becomes a slightly more difficult task, for example. The bigger challenge is for lawyers and law enforcement. Digital content like email and SMS have become key pieces of evidence in countless cases. If all our communication is moved to ephemeral, then there’s a huge roadblock in front of the law.
Right now, governments are engaged in a battle over end-to-end encryption. In a bid to make finding evidence easier, governments have been trying to get social media companies to give up on encryption. If the government succeeds, they could end up starting an en-mass migration to ephemeral. That’s an issue no government around the world has even thought of, much less prepared for.
To understand the full scope of the issue, this Wired article is a great place to start.
In its annual Judges Survey, Exterro found out just how big the issue is. The 2020 survey obtained responses from 20 federal district and magistrate judges in the USA. When asked what new data type legal teams should be worried about, 70% responded ephemeral apps.
The challenge therefore, is to draw a fine line that ensures people can still enjoy their content, while giving law enforcement the teeth it needs to fight crime. Where that line is, only time will tell.
For now though, ephemeral content is clearly the new kid on the block. And it is promising to stay for a very long time.