Posted by Matt Egan 27 May 2014
Talking when no-one is listening: the rise of ephemeral messaging
Web users want immediacy and privacy when they chat. Thus begins the rise of ephemeral communications.
According to a report in the Financial Times recently Facebook is building a video-messaging app aimed at taking on the super popular Snapchat messaging service.
For those that don't know, Snapchat allows users to send each other photos and videos that disappear after being viewed. It's 'chat' in the truest sense of the word, as unlike most online chatter there is no record in retrospect. As a consequence users 'talk' (through photos and videos) more freely. They seem to, anyway. Snapchat is amazingly popular, and added text and video chat features earlier this month.
The new Facebook app is known internally as 'Slingshot' and could launched as soon as this month, although it is not yet confirmed. Slingshot won't be a video-calling app, but will instead work like TapTalk letting users tap a friend's profile picture to quickly send a photo or video that is deleted after being seen. But apparently Facebook - which "does not comment on reports based on rumours and speculation" remains unsure of whether or not to launch Slingshot.
Despite the apparent cold feet, Facebook is clearly in the market for a Snapchat clone. The Financial Times report said that Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been personally overseeing the project, and his company failed to buy Snapchat for $3 billion last year. But it is in the process of acquiring messaging app WhatsApp, which has about 450 million users, so what is the obsession with fast-paced, no-record communication that disappears?
Chat is ephemeral, hence the rise in ephemera
The desire to communicate in an immediate way is of course understandable. Email is a fine replacement for the posted letter, but it lacks the immediacy of a phone conversation. In a world of open-plan offices and constance digital contact instant-messaging is a perfect way to make collective decisions (and waste a lot of time).
But for digital natives who have never known a world without ubiquitous communication there is an added value to immediate communication that is ephemeral.
These days everything you do ends up online, which means everything is archived and searchable. And that's not how chat is meant to be. We know much about historical events from the letters of participants and witnesses of those events. But even in private letters it is only the version of history the authors were prepared to put to paper. (We know from the letters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson their views on the French Revolution, but to know that they came to detest one another - for a while - you have to rely on the hearsay of remembered conversations. And that is probably how both men would wish it to be.)
In the same way email, blogs and social media will give future historians an absolute record of one version of history. The version we all collectively wish to submit for posterity. We post only those photos of us looking how we wish people to view us, after all.
(Don't believe me: recently people have started taking legal action to force Google to take their presence offline.)
Taking it off Google and Facebook
Those methods of communication also open us up to commercialisation. There is a growing awareness amongst consumers that everything they do or say online is returned to them in an advert for a related product or service. Of course chat services are there for exactly the same commercially led data-gathering reasons, but their popularity owes something to the semi-conscious desire to communicate online without being recorded.
Because there is a separate level of communication beyond email and social, and Snapchat, Whatsapp and Slingshot speak to the need for it. What Alan Partridge would fetishise as 'chat'. The every day, off the record, honest-to-goodness interaction in which we all indulge, but which we may not wish to be recorded for posterity, or viewed from afar.
The digital natives (naturally) take this online, and (naturally) they like there to be no record of what they say, film or snap in a photo. And not just for when they are making sexual advances (but mostly for those times).
The rise in ephemeral communication reflects the fact that an increasing percentage of our communication is visual, and online. But it also reflects an increasing desire not to be recorded or monitored. And that is a trend that is only going to increase - as we are increasingly recorded and monitored. See also: How to add filters to Snapchat: set the mood with filters on your creepy Snapchat photos.