You’ve heard it an eye-rolling number of times: anything you post online, or any message you send—be it a seemingly benign text or a photo taken when you were drunk—can come back to haunt you.
Does it have to be true, though? A growing number of startups, led by rapidly growing photo-sharing app Snapchat, are challenging the assumption with apps that allow you to send text and multimedia messages that—like in Mission Impossible or Inspector Gadget—quickly self-destruct (minus, of course, an actual explosion). Even Facebook has gotten in on the action, releasing a Snapchat lookalike app called Poke for sending friends notes, pictures, and videos.
While technology allowing us to send and receive expiring messages is not new, these apps offer a very simple way to exercise control over your data in a world where your so-called permanent record is now documented across the Web. If their appeal continues to climb, such ephemeral media could soon become more far-reaching, and will perhaps even extend to some of the social networks that now mine our every move in an effort to serve up targeted online ads.
“One of the reasons these services are popular is they’re hearkening back to a time when the context was all that mattered,” says Lee Rainie, director of Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. “You’re just having a little shared thing that goes away after it’s been shared.”
That was the idea behind Snapchat, a smartphone app created by Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy as Stanford students in 2011. The free app, which is whimsically styled with a smiley faced, tongue-bared ghost mascot, allows a user to take a photo or video and it send to friends who can see it for up to 10 seconds.
Snapchat recipients must keep a finger on the smartphone’s screen while viewing a picture, which makes it tricky, but not impossible, to take a screenshot (when this happens, the person who sent the image is notified). This hasn’t hampered its popularity, though. In December, users were sharing 50 million snaps per day; this has since risen to 100 million. Snapchat, which declined to comment for this article, doesn’t release user figures, but as of Wednesday it was the seventh-most-popular free iPhone app and 20th most-popular free Android app.
Jeremy Liew, a partner at Snapchat investor Lightspeed Venture Partners, explains its rapid ascent as a result of people’s growing discomfort with sharing their lives on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Some critics decry Snapchat as a tool for sexting, but Liew says people mostly send snaps during the day, making it unlikely that much racy content is being shared. “People were already feeling like they wanted to have an avenue that was less of a broadcast media model, where they could be a little bit more intimate, more raw and authentic,” he says.
Snapchat isn’t the only startup benefitting from this apparent change in attitude. Wickr, a startup cofounded and led by security expert and Defcon organizer Nico Sell, is also gaining users for its own disappearing-message app.
Sell, who says she stays off Facebook because of the way it collects users’ personal information, came up with the idea for Wickr two years ago as a way to let family and friends share photos and have conversations without handing over personal data, too.
Wickr lets users send encrypted text, audio, video, or photo messages that the recipient can read for up to six days before it evaporates. You can attach documents from online storage services like Google Drive or Dropbox, and a secure VoIP calling feature is coming soon. Though currently available only for the iPhone, an Android version is coming this summer. It is possible to take screenshots, but quite difficult for anything beyond a text-based message, since viewing the image requires you to tap a camera icon at the bottom of the display, then keep your finger perfectly still to keep the picture onscreen. I tried—and failed—several times to make a screenshot of a photo Sell sent me.
“I’ll send someone a picture, just while walking down the street, of some stupid thing that isn’t a pretty picture and is really about the moment, and is going to go away,” Sell says. “It definitely is very freeing.”
Disappearing messages could prove popular beyond social sharing, and could also be profitable, if businesses can be persuaded to pay for the services. Another company, Gryphn, which released a free Android app in February (an iPhone version is coming out shortly), is seeing a lot of interest from paying enterprise users—including hospitals, a police department, and a financial institution.
Gryphn cofounder and chief marketing officer Bobby Saini believes this relates to the growing “bring your own device” trend, where many businesses are moving away from forcing employees to carry company-owned BlackBerrys (which are known for their secure e-mail capabilities).
On Android, Gryphn’s app replaces the stock SMS texting app and encrypts outgoing messages and decrypts incoming messages. The app doesn’t allow users to take screen shots, and encryption can prevent a message recipient from saving or forwarding a message or set a picture message to disappear shortly after being viewed.
Enterprise apps like Gryphn’s could also help companies comply with various laws that dictate how long they must hang on to certain information—such as messages pertaining to a stockbroker’s sale of a client’s stock. Wickr, too, is compliant with a number of communications rules that affect business users.
In addition, Gryphn can determine if you’re talking to a colleague in one message and your husband in another, Saini says, and know to archive and place only the conversation with your colleague into the company’s audit trail.
If ephemeral messaging startups gain in popularity among both consumers and business users, it’s more likely that this kind of capability will bleed into other apps and services, too. “I do believe ephemeral data’s the future. Every single messaging, social, communications app in the future will have ephemeral capabilities,” Sell says. “Now that we’ve done it, it’s really obvious.”