Photographs by Charlie Engman for Bloomberg Businessweek
In the fall of 2012, Sally Ike, a senior at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., heard from a friend about a hilarious new app you could download on your smartphone. Snapchat was free, her friend explained, and allowed you to share photos. And like a lot of photo apps, it was simple: just shoot and send. The hook was that when your friend opened the message, the photo self-destructed within 10 seconds.
At first, Ike thought Snapchat was pretty dumb. She was applying for college, co-editing the high school newspaper, and playing on the ultimate Frisbee team. She was busy. Snapchat seemed pointless. Yet as the fall semester turned into winter, Snapchat grew more and more popular at Columbia High. All day at school “snaps” were flying in every direction. Kids loved to send them back and forth in class. Some teachers banned smartphones during instruction, so you had to be careful. But if you cupped your phone in your palm under the desk with the screen facing up at you, it was no problem.
People kept sending Ike snaps, and the more she played with the app, the more it grew on her. Now she uses it all the time like everyone else. Opening a Snapchat, she says, feels like unwrapping a present. You never know what you’re going to get. Since the messages quickly disappear, there’s no pressure to look cool. People send pictures of themselves making ridiculous faces, smiling like maniacs, sticking out their tongues, giving the stink-eye, sprouting feathers (you can doodle on Snapchat pictures), whatever. You can send videos, too. If someone cheats and tries to take a screenshot of your snap for posterity, the app notifies the sender. Getting caught, says Ike, is a major faux pas. “I was thinking about it today, how next year when I go away to college it will be nice,” she says. “You actually get to see the friend’s face for a quick 10 seconds. It’s more personal than a text.”
In the U.S., Snapchat was the second-most popular free photo and video app for the iPhone in early February, just behind YouTube and ahead of Instagram. It was the 19th-most popular free app overall, according to App Annie, an analytics company. Snapchat’s website claims that more than 50 million snaps are sent every day.
It’s made rivals anxious enough to build similar products. In December social networking giant Facebook (FB) unveiled a Snapchat-like app called Poke that allows users to send self-destructing media. Instead of burying Snapchat, however, the competition from Facebook appears to have made the upstart stronger. In January tech industry blog TechCrunch named Snapchat the “Fastest Rising Startup” of 2012.
Snapchat was born in the spring of 2011 in a frat house. At the time, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy were undergraduates at Stanford University and brothers at Kappa Sigma. Spiegel was studying engineering; Murphy, computer science. The pair envisioned making a smartphone app for their friends who wanted to socialize online with no lasting record or repercussions. They were inspired, they would later explain, by anguished stories they’d heard over the years about people scrambling to delete or de-tag unflattering photos before the snapshots circulated too far on social networks and appeared on search results forever. (Spiegel, who runs the company out of his dad’s house in Pacific Palisades, Calif., did not respond to several interview requests. Murphy could not be reached; e-mailed requests to the company for comment were not returned.)
Spiegel and Murphy’s timing was excellent. As they worked on a prototype over the summer, then-Congressman Anthony Weiner was in the news because of some indiscreet photo-sharing with women he met on Twitter, and career-immolation-by-selfie was on everyone’s mind. Snapchat launched on Apple’s (AAPL) App Store that fall and downloads soon soared. “Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment,” Spiegel wrote on the company blog in May 2012. “It’s about communicating with the full range of human emotion—not just what appears to be pretty or perfect. Like when I think I’m good at imitating the face of a star-nosed mole, or if I want to show my friend the girl I have a crush on.”
Adults have long warned kids that if they weren’t careful, questionable behavior would end up on their permanent record. Over the decades, that record has become larger, more searchable, and more available to the public. With cloud computing, the digital space for it has expanded exponentially. Just one institution, the Library of Congress, is busy archiving more than 170 billion tweets.
The business model of today’s free social media networks and search engines, of course, is collecting and storing behavior and interests of every kind, and selling that information to marketers. And companies are getting better at organizing and finding out about every last bit of a user’s social life, whether it’s a party picture or a preference for a certain kind of shoe. Last month, Facebook began rolling out Graph Search, a tool to retrieve details from the pasts of its billion users.
In this environment, unease about one’s permanent social record is logical. Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research (MSFT), says it’s not surprising that teenagers would be the first to appreciate the advantages of impermanent social media. “This cohort has grown up with the expectation of surveillance by people who hold direct power over them,” says Boyd. “It’s not about surveillance from companies or the state. It’s surveillance from their teachers, their college admissions officers, their parents.”
When Snapchat launched, Spiegel and Murphy used images of comely young women smiling devilishly to promote the app. The winking suggestion was not lost on the media. Whatever else Snapchat proved good for, everyone soon agreed, the boys at Kappa Sigma had created the people’s champ of smartphone peep shows.
Patchen Barss, author of The Erotic Engine: How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication from Gutenberg to Google, says that for centuries new ways of sharing naked images have pushed forward the evolution of communications technology. The theory, says Barss, is that fans of erotica are quick to embrace any new technology that allows them to check out the goods in a more convenient setting with greater anonymity and lower risk of exposure.
Over the years, says Barss, early adopting horndogs have helped drive the advancement of everything from the printing press to the VCR to pay-per-view TV to streaming video to faster cellular networks. “Now we might be seeing it happen again with Snapchat,” he says.
Many new forms of communications technology seem seedy and absurd when mainstream audiences first find out about them and later prove to have much broader applications. “I’m not a guy who’s going to be doing any sexting,” Barss says. “But right now there are no pictures of my two young kids on the Internet, because I don’t want to lose control of the images. It’s a permanent record. If there were an app where I could share pictures of them with family members, and then the photos would disappear forever after a set period of time, I might be willing to adopt that technology. So you could see how this app might be able to springboard into a more mainstream usage.”
In the life cycle of a startup, Snapchat is in the larval stage in which the company focuses on the consumer experience while adopting a pose of apathy toward the brands and marketers it will court when it someday gets around to making money. (This is also the stage where bigger, more established tech companies might be eager to make an offer to buy a startup.) In December the tech blog GigaOm reported that venture capital firm Benchmark was closing in on an $8 million investment rumored to value Snapchat at $50 million. Matt Cohler, the Benchmark general partner handling Snapchat, did not respond to an interview request.
As for marketers, they’re waiting for an invitation before they jump in. “If one of our clients asked us for a point of view on this today, I would say don’t completely ignore it but be realistic,” says Ken Burbary, chief digital officer at Campbell Ewald, a U.S.-based marketing and communications firm. “What Snapchat is right now is pretty cloudy.”
Whether the app ever blossoms into a revenue-generating business, its rapid growth demonstrates a huge business opportunity—namely, services aimed at the increasing number of people worried about their social media footprints.
Michael Fertik, chief executive officer of Reputation.com, a California-based company that sells online reputation and privacy services, says his customers have grown by 1,000 percent in the past two years. The increase, he says, reflects concern among consumers about how their data are being harvested. “The data are so valuable now,” he says. “Everybody wants them.”
Fertik says consumers increasingly realize that postings such as photographs and status updates might have an infinite lifetime online. Once a lamentable image is released into the world and stored on a social network’s server and your friends’ smartphones, it can be hard to delete. What the public has yet to realize, he says, is that their data are not only being archived but also analyzed and scored. One product that Reputation.com experimented with was a Web browser extension that encrypts everything you put on Facebook. To see photos or status updates, friends needed a special key to decode the encryption. No data ever reached Facebook’s servers. The product also allowed customers to set finite life spans on their updates. “You could say, ‘Everything I post blows up after 20 minutes’ or on Jan. 1 or on graduation day,” says Fertik. “It got like a million people downloading it within a few weeks. Clearly there’s a pent-up demand.”
Reputation.com has since discontinued the product, says Fertik, to concentrate its resources on more lucrative services. Now, he says, the company is focused on collecting large archives of data about consumers’ habits online and allowing individuals to control how that data gets sold. “We are collecting data and then enabling our customers to expose the data, electively to third parties, in an open and transparent transaction of which they are completely aware,” Fertik says, “as opposed to being digitally exploited every day without your knowledge or permission by people you can’t identify for purposes you’ll never know. It’s like digital serfdom vs. digital liberty.”
Surveys suggest that the privacy concerns underlying the growth of Snapchat and Reputation.com are pervasive. Last year a Pew Research Center survey found that 57 percent of all app users “have either uninstalled an app over concerns about having to share their personal information, or declined to install an app in the first place for similar reasons.” A January 2013 study by the Ponemon Institute, a research organization focused on privacy and security issues, found social media to be among the least trusted industries when it comes to protecting customers’ privacy online.
Amid the heightened anxiety, many consumers young and old say they’re ready for the government to intervene. In a 2010 survey, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that although young Americans are often portrayed as having a devil-may-care attitude toward social media, they’re as anxious as their parents about their permanent social records. Some 88 percent of participants from ages 18 to 24 responded that there should be a law requiring websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual upon request. The survey found that 94 percent of people from 45 to 54 also supported the idea.
The widespread concern over the permanence of data trails is already fueling so-called right-to-be-forgotten movements around the world. In 2009, Argentine pop star Virginia Da Cunha sued Google (GOOG) and Yahoo! (YHOO), demanding that the companies stop including links in their search results to websites featuring racy pictures of her that had leaked online. A judge ruled in her favor. The companies appealed, and in 2010 a higher court overturned the initial ruling. Dozens of similar cases are making their way through the Argentine courts.
In January 2012, Viviane Reding, vice president of the European Commission, proposed privacy legislation that contained a right-to-be-forgotten provision. Broadly defined, the right would affect Internet usage in 27 countries. It has touched off a wave of criticism from technology executives and legal scholars, who argue it would end up creating more problems than it would solve.
Among other concerns, the provision would transform Google, Facebook, and other Internet companies from free platforms into global censors. Writing in the Stanford Law Review last year, law professor Jeffrey Rosen of George Washington University called the proposal the “biggest threat to free speech on the Internet in the coming decade.” The right to be forgotten, he noted, “could make Facebook and Google, for example, liable for up to 2 percent of their global income if they fail to remove photos that people post about themselves and later regret, even if the photos have been widely distributed already.”
At the moment, the default setting for almost everything people share online is that it will live for eternity in the cloud. In Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a lawyer and a professor at the University of Oxford, argues that this inevitably creates problems for individuals and societies that need the ability to forget in order to move forward. A perfect memory, he writes, can be paralyzing, trapping people in the past and discouraging them from trying new challenges.
Mayer-Schönberger argues that all information created online should come with customizable expiration dates. Not every piece of data would have to expire after a few seconds as photos on Snapchat do. The key, says Mayer-Schönberger, is to include some form of a self-destruct button in everything created online and to give consumers the power to tinker with the settings from the outset.
Snapchat is not the first company to experiment with the concept of sharing impermanent media with friends. While researching his book, Mayer-Schönberger says he interviewed the executives of a startup file-sharing company called Drop.io, founded in New York in 2007. Among other features, Drop.io included an easy way for users to specify how long their shared files would last before being destroyed. The founders were surprised, they told Mayer-Schönberger, by how popular the expiration dates were with customers.
In 2010, Facebook bought Drop.io and subsequently shut the whole thing down. Sam Lessin, a Drop.io co-founder who now works for Facebook on product management, declined to be interviewed.
“People have always asked me, ‘Why hasn’t the market responded?’ ” says Mayer-Schönberger. “Snapchat and others are responding. Snapchat is a perfect example of creating ephemerality. There is a real demand out there. Facebook has really failed on this front because Mark Zuckerberg, in his DNA, thinks that all data has hidden value and preserving this stuff is really, really important. He’s trying to hold onto everything, forever.” A spokesperson for Facebook declined to make anyone from the company available for an interview.
The consumer reception to Poke, the Snapchat-like app Facebook released in December, has been lukewarm. In early February, it was the 634th-most popular free Apple app in the U.S., according to App Annie. “The reason I don’t think Poke could ever succeed is that people don’t trust Facebook for that,” says Boyd. “No one can frame it as anything other than an attempt to kill off Snapchat.”
In her work for Microsoft Research, Boyd often studies teenagers in their natural habitats, watching closely as they navigate various social media networks. Not long ago, she interviewed a teenage girl who had grown frustrated with Facebook. The problem, the teen explained, was that people in her social circle kept dredging things out of the recent past and using the old photos or comments or status updates to start fights or make fun of one another. The girl abhorred the friction. Status updates from a month ago, she told Boyd, make zero sense when you transplant the cursory thoughts to the present day.
Rather than abstaining from Facebook altogether, the teen adopted another method of self-protection. Every day she would go about her normal business on Facebook—writing status updates, sharing pictures, commenting on her friends’ posts. And then every night she would go back and delete everything she’d just created. The goal was to scrub her Facebook wall clean. Limiting the past, she reasoned, would limit the future drama. “She would try to keep things as ephemeral as possible,” says Boyd. “She called it the process of ‘white-walling.’”
Destroy-your-own media is becoming much more readily available. In the summer of 2012 a team of data security experts in San Francisco launched Wickr, a free mobile app that allows users to send each other an array of impermanent media—including self-destructing text messages, videos, audio files, and PDFs. Like Snapchat, users customize how long their messages will live on the recipient’s device (lasting up to several days) before disappearing.
Nico Sell, a co-founder of Wickr, says media expiration dates are not limited in appeal to paranoids and perverts. “The early adopters of Snapchat are teens in the U.S.,” says Sell. “The early adopters of Wickr are celebrities, royalty, reporters, doctors, lawyers, bankers, cops, feds, freedom fighters, privacy advocates, security geeks, and the tech elite around the world.” The services may also appeal to criminals who in recent years have been hit with a large uptick in mobile surveillance by law enforcement. White-collar criminals in particular will surely appreciate having that much less material for prosecutors to subpoena.
Snapchat’s self-destruct feature isn’t foolproof. Since the app’s debut, a minor genre of articles has flourished online showing people how to save snaps on a phone without the sender knowing. Sell says Wickr offers its users military-grade protection. “To make something self-destruct for real is very difficult,” she says. “I would say Snapchat only offers the illusion of self-destruction.”
So far, Wickr has failed to rival Snapchat in popularity. According to App Annie, as of early February, Wickr ranked 174th in the U.S. among social networking apps for iPhones and iPads. Even so, Wickr doesn’t see itself as a niche service. “Whenever I ask someone, do they want control over the messages and media that they send to others, the answer 100 percent is yes,” says Sell. “There’s no question that this has mainstream appeal.”
Where Snapchat tends to pitch itself as a safe way to goof off, Wickr promotes itself in loftier terms. Sell talks of private communication as “a universal human right” that largely doesn’t exist in the current digital landscape in which big data companies are continuously harvesting and mining information about our every online utterance. “Unarchived communication is our most primal form of communication,” she says. “It’s natural for us to go back to it for things like communicating with our friends and family, and not having to think about the fact that the Internet is forever. Ephemeral data is the future.”