Snapchat pivots from privacy to publicity

It has a sexting image and a privacy problem, but can the app kill two birds with one stone?

Snapchat, the mobile phone app intended for "view once" picture messaging, has developed into an $860 million company which boasts of processing approximately 200 million images per day since its creation in 2011 by a group of Stanford University students. However, recent developments mean the Snapchat team might have to slightly alter their tactics (if they can fit it in between Winklevoss twin-style lawsuits).

Originally marketed as a method of picture communication which leaves no virtual footprint, Snapchat was promoted on the basis that "snaps" vanished once viewed. The unsurprising (and perhaps intentional) consequence is that it has been widely viewed as a mechanism for teenage "sexting". 

But whereas it was initially claimed that “snaps disappear” once opened, it turns out that all the photos taken using Snapchat are cached deep in users’ Android mobile phones: Richard Hickman, a forensic researcher, developed software that enables Snapchat images to be restored. So now, in addition to every user’s pre-existing ability to screenshot snaps (the app gives the sender a warning if that's happened, but is powerless to prevent it), it appears Snapchat images are barely more secure than any of the other tracks we leave whilst living our online lives. Given second-hand sales of mobile devices, using Snapchat under the false pretence that photos are immediately deleted could have serious consequences, as images intended to be private are handed over to unknown third parties. 

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over Snapchat’s supposedly “deceptive business practices”. “Despite promising to its users that photos and videos sent via Snapchat will ‘disappear forever’,” the report stated, “Snapchat photos and videos remain available to others even after users are informed that the photos and videos have been deleted.” The EPIC complaint also detailed Snapchat’s FAQ page as stating, “Question: “Is there any way to view an image after the time has expired? Answer: No, snaps disappear after the timer runs out.”

The Snapchat team responded to protests by attempting to retract the idea that Snapchat photos are evanescent: they released a blog post which stated, “If you've ever tried to recover lost data after accidentally deleting a drive…you might know that with the right forensic tools, it's sometimes possible to retrieve data after it has been deleted. So…keep that in mind before putting any state secrets in your ‘selfies’." 

As a result of users’ gradual realisation that snaps are more permanent than initially thought, Snapchat appears to have modified its business strategy and pivoted from secrecy to sociability. For example, the recent modifications to the screenshot process for iOS 7 models mean that a notification is no longer sent at all when the recipient of a snap has taken a screenshot of an image, leaving senders unaware of who is keeping their images handy for a second-look. Unless Snapchat updates its coding to reverse this change, this seems to reinforce the idea that a pivot has occurred.

It appears, however, that Snapchat is not particularly concerned by this progression. Never content with being labelled the sexting app, the Snapchat team, which currently consists of just five people, two of whom are the co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, are facing the issue of Snapchat’s dwindling ability to guarantee secure photo-messaging by shifting the spotlight to SnapChat’s potential to foster friendships. Spiegel recently commented, “We allow the Snapchat community to enforce its own norms. If you want to play a mean joke, we can’t stop you. But it’s important to look at how people build and maintain friendships. They would gain nothing in friendship by saving an ugly photo and posting it.”

Through the addition of the points system (where points are gained for numbers of snaps sent) and the "Best Friends" feature (which abandons privacy altogether in allowing users to see who their friends Snapchat the most), the Snapchat team have decidedly distanced themselves from their original concept. Though undeniably Snapchat remains a form of “disposable media” when compared with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, these changes illustrate just how difficult it is to truly erase our virtual lives and how SnapChat is gradually adapting to accept that.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.