Ephemeral as the default in digital

24/11/2023

Those who were over 30 years old in 2013 have probably never used or even understand Snapchat.

Today, however, we all feel the influence of the ephemeral messaging app. Stories, Snapchat’s legacy to humanity, reject a maxim of the commercial internet: that all data must be kept forever.

The ephemeral in digital is an unintuitive concept. With storage prices falling and the promises of new technologies capable of extracting insights from large volumes of data — big data, machine learning, LLMs! —, turning your back on data becomes an almost subversive attitude.

Maybe it’s. If it’s… so what? It’s also liberating. And it can be economical. There are advantages to not being a digital hoarder.

It took a while for other companies and apps to embrace the ephemerality as the standard, that concept brought by Snapchat.

In the main messaging apps outside the US — WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram — you can set a default duration for messages in a conversation. Put another way, the default is that messages are temporary, that they automatically disappear after a few days, weeks or months.

In the field of privacy, the two largest digital advertising companies, Google and Meta, instrumentalized the ephemeral to placate criticism of their business model of aggressive data collection to target ads.

It’s been a while that it’s possible to turn off or set an automatic deletion period for some types of data that both companies collect, store and use to show us ads.

I always suspect the intentions of Google and Meta. It’s likely that that feature has only been released because old data is no longer valuable in their modern digital advertising systems. Still, it’s a good change!

I propose we go further.

In 2004, Google launched Gmail with a challenge: that no one would ever need to delete an email due to lack of storage.

When I open my email settings (which is not Gmail), I see ~100k messages sitting there. It’s a lot, and much of it, I’m sure, dispensable.

What if the email was ephemeral by default? If archived messages were automatically deleted after… say, a year?

The original promise of Gmail was broken. Coincidence or not, in 2019 many users began to hit the 15 GB ceiling that Google gives to free accounts. From there, just paying a monthly fee would enable someone to continue ignoring the email delete button.

Self-deleting emails would save us from this hassle, keeping the storage occupied by messages under control.

That goes for everything. Subscriptions to cloud storage services — Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive, Dropbox — are, for many, almost mandatory at this point. Do we need so much space for so many files that we will never open again?

What I propose is not an absolute change, but a new default procedure. Of course, there are files that need to be preserved, whether for affective, historical, professional or legal reasons.

But these files, which need to be preserved, are exceptions. Or they should be. Instead of saving everything, the new default would be to delete everything except what matters.

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