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Has the time come for self-destructing tweets?

A new service for twitter lets you add a snapchat-like timer to tweets. Is this what we need to get people to take privacy seriously, asks Siraj Datoo?

Spirit
Spirit

Remember that mundane conversation you had with a friend on Twitter last week - something about a football transfer or your latest favourite gif? If you Google words from that conversation, it's fairly likely that you'll be able to find those tweets, even if you have since sent hundreds more. A Twitter conversation you had years ago can affect Google's auto-suggestion when you type in your name.

So Spirit, a new app that allows you to ensure that your tweet self-destructs by deleting after a specified amount of time, could be a welcome solution. Similar to how one can share specific tweets on Facebook (tagging them #fb after you've installed the Selective Twitter app), Spirit requires users to hashtag their tweets with how long they want them to last: #5d, #2w, #4m, and so on. It can delete tweets from only a minute after they are initially sent.

Founder Pierre Legrain explained to me that he had already seen a number of use cases emerge. Beyond the mere novelty of the app, which has seen users try and "trick" their friends by watching their tweets disappear mid-conversation (unexpectedly common), meteorologists have been showing some excitement about its potential use.

Legrain, a designer-cum-developer, explained:

"...when you are tweeting and updating people about a fast-updating situation, you want the freshest information in the network being passed around and you don't want to be contributing to misinformation... They then have explicit control."

Yet while this use case is valuable, this idea of having more explicit oversight of your information is what interests Legrain. He said that, since it launched last Wednesday, he has been fascinated by its uptake. "[People] want to put things into the public but have more control."

And in addition to this making sense, especially in light of the NSA leaks, it demonstrates how people are becoming more aware of the infinite memory of the internet. That's a good thing. Legrain wouldn't give specific details on the number of users already signed up but said that there were an average of two users signing up every minute.

The idea of a lasting digital footprint is one that is gaining increasing attention and rightly so. In America, New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner sparked a debate about social media use after he sent inappropriate messages through Twitter's direct messaging feature. US talk show hosts explained how male students have started to use phones to send sexual messages to girls they don't know because i) it's more uncomfortable getting rejected in person; and ii) young people believe that something sent over the internet is less "real" than saying something out loud.

The idea that text messages, Snapchats and other updates sent across the internet are less tangible than real-life conversations is worth talking about because of how widespread it is. British Youth Commissioner Paris Brown ended up leaving a "dream job" only one week after she started because of a media furore over (now deleted) tweets that could have been perceived as homophobic and offensive.

Updating a public Twitter account does not only send those updates to your followers but into the wider internet.. The same can be said for Facebook and Instagram, where a growing number of people are unwittingly sharing images. For example, do you have a cover photo? Its default setting is set to public and cannot be changed. That image can be seen by anyone who can find your profile.

And take Instagram. Anyone who quickly scans my account there could very easily figure out that I've been in New York since mid-July, have a soft spot for coffee, tea, Nutella, coconuts and Asian cuisine and that I have, at least once, played Draw Something. And that I'm awesome at it. And that's the profile of someone who's careful about what he shares online.

Despite this, such technology has a way of tricking our minds into sharing more than we're comfortable with the world knowing. A new retweet, favourite or "like" brings with it a positive sentiment and this, in turn, eases us into sharing more. Perhaps Spirit can force us to be more wary with our tweets. We'll never know now, I suppose. Literally.