There’s something appealing about a message that self-destructs in 10 to 15 seconds. If you’ve ever drunk dialled, sent grovelling texts to an ex, or a half-naked selfie duck-pouting in the bathroom mirror, you will appreciate the reprieve granted by what is known as the ‘‘ephemeral’’ message.
Send, poof, and it’s gone.
Snapchat was the first app on the scene with its clever ‘‘ghost’’ function. Launched in 2011 by two Stanford University students, the service lets users send a photo or video known as a ‘‘snap’’ to chosen recipients, with a designated time limit of between one and 10 seconds. Once the time is up, the message vanishes from devices and is deleted from the Snapchat servers.
The desire for communication that can dematerialise has taken off. Forbes magazine estimates that 50 million people currently use Snapchat. The users have an average age of 18:young adults aware that what they post online can hang around and haunt them, long into the future.
Snapchat investor Jeremy Liew, of Lightspeed Venture Partners, describes self-destructing messaging as a throwback to a more innocent time, when a conversation could be momentary, like a phone chat on a landline or a photo kept in a family album, and before digital footprints could stomp on your reputation.
‘‘This isn’t a silly little messaging app,’’ Liew told Forbes. ‘‘It allows people to revert back to a time when they never had to worry about self-censorship.’’
Snapchat numbers as of May had 700 million photos and videos being sent per day. The content of those messages remains invisible to anyone outside the inner sanctum, like secrets shared by teens at a slumber party.
Explicit content? Almost half of it, reckons one study in Britain, in which it was estimated that 47 per cent of all Snapchat respondents aged 18 to 30 had received nude pictures via the network.
According to the 2013 poll, conducted by shopping-aid website VoucherCodesPro, 67 per cent of Snapchat users had received images of ‘‘inappropriate poses or gestures’’.
That flashing of flesh might seem protected, given the message’s limited lifespan and thetechnology that notifies the sender if a screenshot of their image is taken. But what if another phone is at the ready to snap the ‘‘snap’’, or someone is using an intercepting app like Snapbox?
Cyber safety consultant Leonie Smithsays there is no such thing as secure messaging. ‘‘Anything you send over messaging has the potential to either be copied, downloaded or intercepted,’’ she says. ‘‘Children and teens who send nude photos via any of these temporary message apps are simply naive and trusting.’’
In her presentations at schools, Smith introduces a police youth liaison officer who says more and more primary school students are sexting using these types of apps.
Smith says that as soon as a child has access to a mobile device with a camera, parents need to educate them aboutappropriate uses, and that sharing a photo is never fully secure, despite the apparent protection of a 10-second glance.
Apple and Facebook are now jostling for space in ephemeral messaging. Apple announced the feature upgrade in iOS 8, and Facebook has launched its stand-alone Slingshot app.
Slingshot’s developers believe there is plenty of room for these kinds of impermanent messaging apps
‘‘Photos and videos that don’t stick around forever allow for sharing that’s more expressive, raw and spontaneous,’’ they say. ‘‘We can connect the same way we like to live: in the moment.’’
But Slingshot isn’t quite as free spirited as Snapchat; receivers need tosend back a message to unlock the original photo or video.
Alexandra Tselios,an online publisher, is a Snapchat user who likens self-destructing messaging to being let in on a private joke. ‘‘The excitement of a self-destructing message really just lends to our natural tendency to want to be ‘in’ on something,’’ she says. ‘‘It feels exciting to receive an image you believe was taken just for you – the naughtier the image, the heightened the risk. And if you’re young, you’re driven by the adrenalin of the exchange.’’
The danger comes when teenagers start to exploit a service with remote flirting or bullying.
‘‘Unfortunately this ends up being an easy avenue for young teenagers to have a bit of ammo against each other,’’ Tselios says.