Over the last several years, as the cost of storage dropped (and the power of “big data” analytics has grown) the online industry has viewed data persistence as a critical feature. Google’s Gmail proclaims that you don’t have to “waste time deleting messages” and that the “Gmail way” is to “go for years without deleting a single message.” Online storage services such as Dropbox, Box, Egnyte and Bitcasa all make it very easy to retain your documents without worrying about running out of space.
My partners and I have been thinking about data persistence for years. (In fact, my partner Rob chose to name his blog “Permanent Record” over six years ago - reflecting the empty threat that school principals invoked). But watching Snapchat create a $3B company on the back of ephemeral messaging -- messaging that is intentionally not persistent – has been eye-opening. danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft has a great point when she said that apps like Snapchat “challenge the assumption that persistence is the right default and raises questions about when and where people don't want persistence. Given the privacy rhetoric...a persistence-by-default-minded assumption is that anyone who doesn't want their data to be persistent has something to hide.” Yet, she argues, that is not the case for most users. Instead, ephemeral messages allow users to communicate without clutter – allowing people to communicate more authentically and freely.
Over the last several weeks my partners and I have been playing with a new app called Confide (much more on Confide below) and have begun to wonder whether we will begin to see more products where limited data persistence is a feature.
While I didn’t attend CES this year, I read with interest about the realization that cars are now collecting information about drivers (Are they wearing their seatbelt? Are they going 75 miles per hour? Where do they drive to?) – and the growing debate on how those records are stored and used. It didn’t help when Ford Motor Company’s top sales executive told a panel at CES: “We know everyone who breaks the law. We know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing.”
Last week, DuckDuckGo (a Philly-area company!) announced that queries to their search engine increased by 250% (to over 1B) in 2013. The main reason for this growth is because they do not retain any search history (unlike Google which retains records of every web search a user performs when they are logged into a Google account).
What’s taken me some time to realize is that ephemeral content doesn’t equate to illicit or illegal activity. Almost every Fortune 500 company has a records retention policy – identifying what messages should be saved and what messages should be deleted. Just because a company has a policy to delete records doesn’t mean they are doing anything illegal. Just as the fact that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt chooses to ignore the “Gmail way” and deletes his old emails “as quickly as possible” does not mean that he’s done anything wrong. Just like every company that purchases a shredder is not Arthur Anderson.
For years Facebook has given users the choice of who gets to see a specific message – as a user, they give me the option of seeing who gets to view every update I post. I also think that it is reasonable for a service to allow a user to set how long every message should persist.
People intuitively understand that different communication mediums are used for different audiences. When someone says “I’d rather discuss this in person” that doesn’t mean they are conspiring to conduct illegal business. But rather, that some in-person discussions allow you to be more blunt, more transparent, more candid and more human than digital discussions allow. Almost every US President in the last 20 years has fallen victim to a “hot microphone” – where their conversation intended for a small audience was broadcast to a larger audience via a live microphone. It’s very clear that they communicate differently in public than they do in private. And I think that one of the problems of digital communications today is that every email is like a hot mike – you have no idea who will ultimately see it. As a result, people tend to be far more guarded in their digital communications than they are in person. (With the exception of Governor Christie’s staff – who have seem to have no problem communicating transparently in email).
That is why my partners and I are so intrigued by the recent launch of Confide. While Snapchat targets young consumers (the vast majority of their users are under 25), Confide is an ephemeral messaging app for enterprise. When you are able to be certain that your message is only going to be seen by your intended recipient -- and it is not persistent – I think you are far more likely to be transparent and direct. I know that I often spend a lot of time editing/refining emails and adding context – not because I’m concerned about how the recipient will take it, but because I want to make sure I add enough context so that the email conveys my authentic beliefs in case it gets forwarded to other people.
Many companies have had problems with their internal messages, documents and dashboards being leaked externally. And as a result, companies have to be extremely guarded in what information gets distributed electronically. Non-persistent messaging won’t eliminate all of these events from occurring, but it can facilitate an environment where companies are more willing to share information with their teams – and become more transparent.
We’ve recently started using Confide internally at First Round and I’ve already have seen more candid/transparent communication. And that is something I hope persists.