Baggage Networks

What if timelines and identity in social networks become the exception, and ephemera and anonymity become the norm?

May 8, 2014
Jonathan Libov

I recently posed a question on Twitter: What if the way Snapchat handles photo and messaging is the way it always should have been?

While ephemeral apps like Snapchat and anonymity apps like Secret and Whisper are still in their infancy, we look at them as novel variations on social media. But maybe Snapchat and Secret aren't so exceptional. Maybe the era of Facebook/Twitter style identity timelines and messaging/email archives will prove to be the historical exception in the same way the era of AOL and Yahoo style portals turned out to be.

The simplest argument for why ephemera and anonymity might be the way of the future: That's what kids are doing now, so that's what they'll be doing when they get older. Or as Dustin Curtis put it, "If you want to predict the future, just look at what middle-class American teens are doing."

Here's a problem with that argument: Teens grow into adults. It could just be that there are many things which teens will always do while they're in their teenaged years and then stop doing once they become adults.

What I think is a better argument for ephemera and anonymity being the way of the future begins with this paragraph from The Verge's coverage of Snapchat 4.0:

To Spiegel, the reason none of his friends video call each other on a daily basis is because "calling" was born of an era where software needed to emulate real-world tools. "What does a phone look like without a ringer?" he asks. Skeuomorphic metaphors have always been a part of computing, Spiegel says, because that’s how we all learned to use computers. "But," he says, "the biggest constraint of the next 100 years of computing is the idea of metaphors."

That's a hell of an interesting idea. What I love is that Spiegel's not only challenging how we think computers should work, but also how telephones should work. For all that the telephone system gave us — namely (and obviously) voice communication over long distances — it added a drawer full of junk to the dynamic of human conversation: dial tones, numerical addresses, ringers, busy signals, etc.

The telephone also added a substantial amount of archival to voice communication: voicemail, phone records, and wiretapping. And in the same vein, email added a layer of archival and instant traceability. All of those features have tremendous benefits — we all appreciate that we can search for old emails whenever we want — but they come with costs (namely, privacy concerns and baggage). There are often things you'd like to say or write that you might not because you don't want to exist in a database somewhere.

We may have even reached the point where the specter of archival is reaching its natural limits: Many people, myself included, cannot tolerate the paranoia brought on by being in the presence of Google Glass. Fear of the NSA might not be tangible among average consumers but it's not insignificant.

The most acute example I can think of: Standup comedians now lament how smartphones and other recording devices are hampering their ability to try out new material. Chris Rock, quoted in BlackBook:

"The sad thing, with all this taping and stuff, no one’s going to do stand-up," Rock stated. "And every big stand-up I talk to says, "How do I work out new material? Where can you go, if I have a half an idea and then it’s on the Internet next week?"

Rock references his infamous “Niggas vs. Black People” routine from his 1996 Bring the Pain standup special, an act he estimates took six months to hone and perfect...“You know how racist that thing was a week in?” Rock said, “That’s not to be seen by anybody.”

Of course we shouldn't (and couldn't) stuff it all back in Pandora's box. And I'm sure it's not the case that everyone will eventually switch over completely to ephemeral and anonymous networks because identity networks are too important. But what if we are approaching some natural limits to the levels of archival and identity that we can tolerate?

What if Snapchat grows to the point that ephemera and anonymity become the default? Imagine a messaging app where you couldn't automatically download any photo or video shared with you (perhaps you have one hour to ask the sender for permission to download the photo). Or a social network where you could be sure that old content is regularly expunged. (Update: Turns out there's a social network that does exactly this.)

Imagine how much of a burden might be relieved if we were as free to talk and share electronically as we are (or once were?) in person.