About Ephemerality: Inboxes and Importance

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Being Some Thoughts on the Perceived Need for, and Function of, Ephemeral Content

I have started to believe that we — by which I mostly mean I, but there are a number of people in the boat with me these days — have been missing something in our discussion of the trend towards ephemeral content online.

Writing When the Internet Is Your Hometown a year ago, I saw the emergence of ephemeral-by-design online communication largely as a reaction to the longstanding drive towards the Internet as a permanent record. If you’re embarrassed by what you posted to Facebook as a sophomore in high school, then it seems reasonable that you start to gravitate towards services that avoid creating that same situation for your future selves.

In short: because your offline self can evolve as time passes, your online self should be allowed to do the same; let’s stop defaulting to permanence online just because we can.

I still believe that this is a significant factor in the development of the ephemeral-by-design corners of the digital world, but my perspective is evolving and it feels to me like there are a number of other interesting factors in play.

Take Confide, the ephemeral messaging app that has been pegged as “SnapChat for businesspeople.” As early articles about SnapChat were required to make at least one mention of sexting, Confide articles almost invariably bring up the specter of scofflaw businesspeople sharing insider information and laughing at document retention requirements. This is a reasonable concern, but probably a little overblown and possibly missing something important.

Jon Brod, one of the app’s creators, has a neat creation story for it: he says that the app arose from the hassles of scheduling an off-the-record employee reference discussion with Howard Lerman, now also a Confide co-founder.

“We’re busy and it took us six days to connect,” he said in a phone interview, explaining why they created the app. “Professional relationships require tools for impermanence and confidence. We wanted to take the proven model of meeting for an off-the-record cup of coffee and bring it online.”

That quote has stuck with me, because of the phrase “impermanence and confidence.” Does the confidence just refer to “confidence that this message won’t be shared,” or something more than that? Most of the “ephemeral web” coverage has focused on the left-hand term, but I think there may be more buried in that right-hand “confidence.”

I increasingly suspect that the confidence Brod is talking about is in large part confidence that the recipient understands that this communication requires their full attention — that this communication is important. When we have enough input that a Facebook status update that goes out to a thousand people might get no acknowledgement, perhaps we’re starting to feel the need to identify which messages are actually important.

My mother has a framed telegram on the wall of her apartment: it’s the telegram that her grandparents received when she was born. Telegrams, with their associated cost and effort, signified that the information being conveyed was important. Today we have no such mode of communication (other than those delivered by a process server, perhaps), and I think that some “ephemeral web” developers, perhaps without fully realizing it, are trying to address that issue.

When you open a SnapChat message, you know that you need to pay attention, because you won’t get a second chance to see it. SnapChat demands focus, even if a very small amount. When you sit down to have coffee with someone, you demand one another’s full attention, even if it’s just for twenty minutes.

But when you send an email to a busy business person — so busy that it takes them six days to find time for a five minute phone call — the odds are that they’ll be “processing email” when they see your message. They’re probably already thinking about the next email as they type their response to you. A Confide message, on the other hand, would be more like SnapChat, demanding the recipient’s full attention.

I’m sure there’s a niche market for the “HR/legal should never know about this message” functionality that Confide offers, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what Confide’s founders are trying to create. It feels very much like they’re trying to create a mechanism for Important Business Messages, but in the end just making another inbox.

  • there may also be something more fundamental to communications in general going on. Consider for a moment Talkto app – which takes a communication that has historically had to have been made synchronous, and turns into asynchronous, which may indeed be more useful for both parties.

  • That seems a little different to me: you called the business because that (synchronous) phone call was the only option available, even though it was likely sub-optimal for both parties. (Most of the time both I and the business would prefer async, because the question isn’t “this minute” important, just “pretty soon” important on both sides.)

    That feels more like tech allowing us to pick a more appropriate mode of communication now that one exists.

    Though on the other hand, since this reduces the cost to the asker (30 seconds to send the text, rather than knowing I’ll probably be on the phone for several minutes), maybe I start asking a lot more trivial junk and clogging the medium…

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