We Live In A Transient Internet

One of the original purposes of the early Internet, beyond endless information, chat rooms and porn, was its offer of anonymity and privacy. Today, the role of Internet is as a remote tool designed for the kind of conversation you might have in a public house or cafe, which could be both highly personal and private and you hope nobody is listening in. 

Posting, sharing, then your thoughts and messages disappearing, was part of the fundamental appea for millions of users. Not any more.

The Internet, cloud computing and the evolution of social networks has led to a significant transition. We have now moved from carrying paper images around, to having digital ones on our smartphone and the smartphone has taken over from the camera. 

As time went on and more of ourselves were placed online, the need to erase our digital paper trail grew at the same rate as our inability to do so. The modern Internet's capacity for privacy has dissolved with the arrival of mainstream social media and the  appeal it has for creating a personal shop window. 

The evolution of social media has been fueled by the human impulse to communicate is a story about using technology to establish personal connections at massive scale. By the time Snapchat launched in the autumn of 2012, the itch for a return to the ephemeral disappearing Internet was prevalent. Eight years later, Snapchat is really a messaging service on steroids, with all the benefits of a real conversation, visual stimulus, speed, and the contents being left to human memory. 

What Snapchat unlocked was a desperate desire for users to not have their digital actions follow them around, fulfilling the wish that your posts need not  live on in your timeline forever. 

Through fulfilling this need, Snapchat and others like it unlocked a new era of disappearing content, in stark contrast to   most mainstream platforms, where content in your timeline is almost impossible to expunge - as anybody who has ever tried to close their Facebook account can tell you.

Fulfillment of this need  lies behind the latest initiative from Twitter  with their new “fleets”  - posts that, like Instagram Stories, disappear after 24 hours. Fleets are so named because they are fleeting - the work of a moment.  They sit at the top of your mobile screen and can display pictures or screenshots of tweets users feel deserve a second showing and then they are gone. 

Twitter is a platform that is frequently accused of a powerful source of misinformation and abuse, largely because because the evidence is so easily accessible. Journalists and fact checkers can easily report on Twitter’s many trends because they are so readily available. Twitter data is searchable and can  be quickly aggregated. It can derive thousands of results from a single word search.

Twitter is also the biggest megaphone for some of the world’s most powerful people including Donald Trump who, without editorial mediation, can tweet whatever he wants, even with some warnings about his message content inserted by Twitter .But with Fleets, Twitter has created a new opportunity for for its more questionable users to do their work far less publicly.

The implications of un-traceability for dangerous people, dangerous ideas and those who hold power are now crystallised on the platform where they are given an unchecked voice.

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. The problem may not be struggling to find disappearing content from popular accounts, 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. 

Fleets may just become another ill-conieived andely-used feature. and may eventually be undone simply because in the end nobody uses them. The important question is who benefits the most out of our posted 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, will it be those malicious users who are already twisting the Internet into their own version of reality, who have made misinformation and abuse normal. 

Some of the dangerous ideals popularised in the last decade began in online spaces free of personal accountability. The hope to be free of our digital footprint and to be afforded true privacy is a valid wish. However, the capacity for co-option when everything online becomes impermanent will never not exist.

This complexity will only be untangled if we start honestly answering the question: Who wins most on the ephemeral Internet? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?  These are serious questions for the next generation to deal with as the Internet’s effects on fake news and the financial problems for the established publishing companies, who are losing the commercial ability to produce real truth in news. 

New Statesman:        Forbes:          AE Daily:      Maryville University

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