Paul Gilster: There’s serious promise in technology that makes us less visible

CorrespondentNovember 3, 2013 

We’ve all said things we wish we could take back. But at least with spoken words, there is usually no written record to taunt us with the folly of our pronouncements. How much different is email, and all the other trappings of the Internet. Say something on Facebook or dash off an email in a fit of pique and it’s out there. The questionable email can’t be retracted once sent, and who knows how many posts and comments we’ve all left for posterity on the Internet?

The world is filled with people who have blasted out a caustic message only to stare in disbelief at their screen when they realized they had hit “reply all” instead of just “reply,” and various co-workers and friends had now received personal information that couldn’t be retracted. One trick I’ve learned with Gmail is to get into its settings so that any message I send won’t actually go out for ten seconds – in other words, if I realize I’ve made a mistake, I have ten seconds to hit the “undo” option. If you use Gmail, look for this feature in the “Labs” section of Settings.

Making us less visible

Even so, miss that ten second reprieve and the message is in circulation, with all that implies. By the time you realize you’ve sent a photograph of what you had for lunch not just to the officemate you’ve been trying to get to know better but to a mailing list that includes all the higher-ups in your company, it’s too late. The Internet has swallowed your message.

While we can’t get our messages back, we can do something about how long they’re on view. After all, it’s the sheer persistence of Internet information that can come back to haunt us. Various solutions suggest themselves, one of them being an iPhone app called Wickr, which offers various ways of making videos, images or texts self-destruct after they’re sent, and lets you connect to friends without collecting personal data about you on its servers.

I think there’s a serious future for companies that can figure out how to make us less visible, connecting in ways that leave no persistent record. An app called Snapchat makes the case better than anything else. If you think that Facebook hosts a lot of photographs, consider that Snapchat is up above 350 million “snaps” per day, a snap being the photo or video message users send to their friends. The difference: When you send a snap, it’s only around long enough for you to see it, and then it disappears. It’s like an impermanent Facebook or Instagram.

The next big thing?

Available for the iPhone as well as Android, Snapchat lets you set the expiration time on your post from one to ten seconds. You can receive snaps from your friends on the service (Snapchat will let you discover these when you sign up if you allow it to scan your address book), and you can send snaps to anyone, though most users seem to adjust their privacy settings to get snaps only from their friends. Receive a snap and you have just a few seconds to look at it before it’s gone forever. Try to take a screen shot, and this privacy-minded app will let the sender know. In other words, Snapchat means “temporary,” and you shouldn’t mess with it.

Snapchat has just introduced a “stories” feature that lets you accumulate photos that will be viewable during a 24-hour window, an obvious nod to Facebook’s “status” updates, but still ephemeral. Something is working here because the service is hot, now in use by 9 percent of all U.S. cellphone users, and the 2-year-old company is in talks for funding that could drive its valuation as high as $3.6 billion. Investors are looking for the next Facebook and Snapchat, which is wildly popular among teens, may make information that doesn’t last the next big thing.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

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