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24 November 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 6:13am

Who wins on the ephemeral internet?

After years of tracking our digital footprints, platforms are trying to free us from what we post. But with everything set to automatically disappear, we must begin to ask ourselves: who benefits most from a lack of accountability?

By Sarah Manavis

It’s easy to forget that one of the primary appeals of the early internet, beyond endless information, chatrooms and porn, was anonymity: Nineties and early Noughties users were drawn to the idea that they could be anyone, doing anything, shedding each new identity by simply logging off. It was a freedom rarely afforded in “real life” and while it came with its down sides (ease of abuse, lack of accountability), it meant agency and control for those in need of escape. Posting, sharing, and then disappearing was the fundamental rhythm and the greatest draw for millions of users.

Of course, this capacity slowly dissolved with the arrival of mainstream social media, and the new appeal of creating a digital shop window for our in-person selves. As soon as 2007, Myspace was already old news and losing to Facebook. The noughties and early 2010s were dominated by this, in retrospect, rapid lurch towards logging on and logging every digital detail, traceable back to a real person. As time went on, and more of ourselves were placed online, the need to erase our paper trail grew at the same rate as our inability to do it.

So by the time Snapchat launched in the autumn of 2012, the itch for a return to the ephemeral internet was as prevalent as it was untapped. Although it was initially, and for many years, predominantly associated with sending nudes, it also allowed users to send anything to a specific person, have it appear for ten seconds, then disappear forever. It protected privacy above all else – it even made it difficult to take a screenshot (and it let you know if someone else actually managed to). 

[see also: Can the right thrive on Parler?]

This ethos is what led Snapchat to become home to all kinds of ideally impermanent content. It gradually incorporated posts that would last for 24 hours that all of your friends could see – what ultimately became the model for Instagram Stories. Now, Snapchat is effectively a jacked-up messaging service, with all the benefits of a real conversation – visual stimulus, speed, and the contents being left to human memory. 

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What Snapchat unlocked was a desperate desire for users to not have their digital actions follow them around. Whether it was shitposts or thirst traps, the idea was that it didn’t need to live in your, or anyone’s, feed forever. That ephemerality, combined with the lack of gratification that typically comes with a main feed post, gave users the opportunity to have more fun and enjoy the internet without any of its traditional consequences. Why should we have to cling on to the minutiae of what we were posting? It treated the internet like a tool, not a catalogue. And through this it unlocked a new era: the Snapchat-cum-Stories framework of disappearing content that now exists on most mainstream platforms. 

Last week, we saw this idea implemented for the umpteenth time on one of the last few platforms where it didn’t already exist: on Twitter, with their new “fleets” – posts that, like Instagram Stories, disappear after 24 hours. Fleets are named so, presumably, because they are fleeting – the work of, no doubt, a 30-second brainstorm. 

They sit at the top of your mobile screen and can display pictures or screenshots of tweets users feel deserve a second showing (lest you had the horror to miss it when scrolling past it in your timeline). It feels almost wrong to give fleets the time of day because of the near-inevitability that no one will consistently use them. However, Twitter adopting this seemingly benign, beneficial functionality invites a new strain, a new flavour, to social media’s continuing path towards complete ephemerality. 

Twitter is a platform synonymous with misinformation and abuse – something we know because the evidence is laughably accessible. Journalists and fact checkers can report on Twitter’s many nefarious trends because they are so easily available. The data is searchable, can be pretty simply aggregated, and can derive thousands of results from a single word search. Twitter also, of course, is the biggest megaphone for some of the world’s most powerful people (Donald Trump would be less dangerous if he wasn’t able to tweet whatever he wants, even with some incredibly belated content warnings). But with fleets, Twitter opens up a fresh opportunity for its nefarious uses to be practised far less publicly. The implications of untraceability for dangerous people, dangerous ideas, and those who hold power are now crystallised on the platform where they are given an unchecked voice.

We have to begin being honest about the cost-benefit split of increasingly less accountability. In the same way social media is great for making friends and exploring interests, it is also great for radicalising lonely young people and spreading misinformation that can cost lives. YouTube is as beneficial for quirky influencers as it is for Joe Rogan; on Twitter, you get to have unprecedentedly intimate conversations with people you’d otherwise never meet (including celebrities, and other notable figures) – and on Twitter, you’re more likely to be met with abuse than you would when you’re normally browsing the internet from your couch. 

Although we can pretend this is a Twitter problem, or even relevant to certain platforms, the places we count as benign, like Instagram, have these problems too. Wellness influencers have become notorious for posting anti-vax conspiracy theories, cleverly posting to their unsearchable Stories while their feeds stay clean, looking congenial and cliche, with little recourse for users to retroactively report or track misinformation. Snapchat, too, has a similar problem, with misinformation and conspiracy theories on the rise since the start of the pandemic. But because Snapchat is so localised, it’s even harder to track these – the problem becomes more grassroots, rather than simply coming from one popular influencer.

Ephemerality online poses the same question: who wins from our content disappearing? Is the ability to post a bad joke, or even something regrettably tone deaf, on Instagram Stories worthwhile if anti-vax influencers can do the same to encourage people away from a Covid-19 vaccine? Similarly, is it worth it for teenagers to be able to “fleet” something they’d rather not have an employer find in five years’ time if it makes it easier for extremists to hide in plain sight?

[See also: QAnon: how a paranoid delusion is growing in the UK]

The problem may not be struggling to find disappearing content from popular accounts like Donald Trump’s, but that the millions of small accounts whose tweets are traceable will be able to post the same content while making it impossible to track the mass effect. 

Ultimately, though, fleets may just become another half-baked, pointless, barely-used feature. And like other failed attempts from countless social media platforms, fleets may eventually be undone by Twitter (or become inconsequential after no one ends up using them). 

But this isn’t really about fleets or even about Twitter itself, but about who benefits the most out of our content automatically disappearing. Is it the normal people who don’t want to be plagued by every online action, particularly those who’ve had access to social media their entire lives? Or are the real winners those who are already twisting the internet into their own version of reality: the people who have made misinformation and abuse the norm? 

The hope to be free of our digital footprint, and to be afforded true privacy, is a valid aim. However, the capacity for co-option when everything online becomes impermanent will never not exist in conjunction. Some of the dangerous, hard-right ideals popularised in the last decade began in online spaces free of personal accountability. The complexity will only be able to be untangled if we start honestly answering the question: who wins most on the ephemeral internet? And do the benefits outweigh the costs?

[See also: How Donald Trump used Twitter to set a dangerous precedent for US democracy​]

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