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Want that naked sext you sent to just go away? There's an app for that

In a post-Snapchat society, Alison Pill’s breasts wouldn’t be part of the public realm.

Melissa Moseley

Evan Spiegel is the new Mark Zuckerberg. Or at least he is well on his way to social media mogul status. On Tuesday, the 22-year-old, skinny-pant-sporting co-founder of Snapchat spoke at All Things D, a digital media conference in New York, shortly after his company's app hit 150 million shared photos a day.

For the uninitiated: Snapchat is an app that lets users take photos and videos and send them to friends, with one key innovation: The content lasts for a maximum of 10 seconds. After that, it is gone – deleted permanently from the sender's phone, the receiver's phone and the Snapchat server. The fleeting factor makes it an obvious match for potentially maligning yet titillating imagery like unflattering self-portraits, incriminating party videos and, yes, sexy stuff.

Sending X-rated content to a special someone becomes far less precarious when the material is set to self-destruct. In a post-Snapchat society, Anthony Weiner might still be a little-known congressman with an unfortunate last name and Alison Pill's breasts wouldn't be part of the public realm. To say nothing of the thousands of high school students who might be spared the permanent damage of a single bad judgment call. Its growing popularity suggests that our collective appetite for chronic and indiscriminate over-sharing is waning, as our need for privacy increases.

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Spiegel and his friend Bobby Murphy created the app for the former's product-design class two years ago at Stanford, and now the number of photos shared daily through Snapchat is at three times the Instagram level and about half the photo traffic of Facebook, which has been around for nearly a decade. As of February, Snapchat had attracted $13.5-million in venture funding and is valued at between $60- and $70-million (U.S.), according to The New York Times.

Early on, naysayers said Snapchat was nothing more than a sexting app, a critique that is both inaccurate (a large proportion of the photos are self-portraits and shots of friends) and beside the point for many users. In other words, the sextual revolution is fine with them, as long as it's safe. And for the most part it is.

To preserve its greatest selling feature, the program forces the receiver to hold a finger down on the screen while viewing content, otherwise it disappears. This is to protect against screenshots, though late last year the website Buzzfeed ran a tutorial on how to get around the security measure. And of course one can always capture a Snapchat image the old-fashioned way, by using a secondary camera. Privacy isn't quite guaranteed, but the fact that it's the goal suggests a cultural shift.

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg famously described privacy as an outdated concept, but it turns out his core audience is not inclined to "like" that statement. In the same year a study conducted by the PEW research centre showed that Internet users from late teens to early 30s are more concerned with online privacy than previous generations. A more recent study, released last week by the investment bank Piper Jaffray, suggests that teens are ditching Facebook, with numbers down 9 per cent in the past year.

Lori Andrews, the author of I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy, sees Snapchat as a sign of the times: "It's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of programs designed to minimize our digital footprints." Andrews points to new programs designed to protect personal Google searches as well as the "right to be forgotten" legislation currently being debated in the European Union. "Of course Mark Zuckerberg would say [that people no longer care about privacy] since that's his business, but I think we're actually going to see more and more business models aimed at programs that protect privacy."

Andrews says the same software that has turned our lives into a 24/7 photo op could eventually be used to enhance confidentiality. In the meantime, she warns against unfettered sharing of any kind, pointing out that it's not just vindictive or mean-spirited lovers or who might be inclined to snap a screen grab of a racy image. "Your boyfriend might want to be able to look at it again, the way he would with a Playboy magazine," she says. The moral: Unless you want to risk public centrefold status, abstinence is still the safest form of sexting.

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