Permanent Impermanence

Changes to WhatsApp lets users be cavalier with the ‘send’ button

John Tabbernor // Community Relations Manager

In the digital age, permanence can seem fleeting. Instagram and Snapchat stories disappear after 24 hours. News disappears as soon as we scroll past it in our feeds. Heck, we don’t even keep the same email addresses. One of the world’s most popular messaging platforms has now fully embraced this impermanence. WhatsApp announced that users can now delete messages sent to individuals or groups, as long as it is done within seven minutes.

Gone are the days of regretful drunk texts. No longer can your friends lord your hilarious typos over your head. Well, perhaps not. The change does come with some important stipulations. The seven-minute window to delete messages is inflexible. It’s a hard cut off, and after that, you have no other recourse. Also, the sender and recipient both need to be running the latest versions of the software. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that if the recipient has already looked at the message, deleting it serves no purpose. And gods help you if your friend is a habitual screenshot taker.

WhatsApp’s daily active user base numbers over 1 billion, so that means a lot of people will now be able to self-censor themselves. The free application has seen astronomical growth over the last few years, specifically in developing markets. WhatsApp’s ability to subvert traditional SMS texting has proved invaluable to its growth. The platform, which Facebook paid a whopping $19 billion for, is constantly evolving. However, it’s really just keeping up with the Joneses.

Countless other platforms and social media services already allow users to delete or edit their content. Facebook users can edit posts at the press of a button, but it will ag the post as edited. Even Google’s Gmail allows users to set a period of time to recall already sent emails. It seems more and more that services are allowing the already tenuous nature of digital information to become even more so. With the success of platforms like Snapchat, these changes seem almost inevitable.

Snapchat’s popularity stems partly from its ephemeral nature. Photos, videos, and text chat disappear shortly after being received and content pushed to a user’s story is gone after 24 hours. Everything on Snapchat lacks permanence. Therefore, it lacks repercussions. There is an appeal there. In an era where we are told that everything we do online will come back to haunt us, Snapchat tells us not to worry. We can be silly and have fun, and not fret that the video of us grinding with our coworker will show up at Monday’s staff meeting. That is a tantalizing prospect that other platforms such as WhatsApp are trying to capitalize on.

But what we’re being sold is a placebo. Many apps, some nefarious and some less so, allow users to save snaps or videos and easily share them on other platforms. The recent example of a woman in Saudi Arabia facing prison time over videos of her in public in a miniskirt, is an indication of this false sense of security. The videos she posted to Snapchat were widely spread on other, more permanent, platforms. Snapchat’s “impermanence” is easily betrayed by other users’ willingness to circumvent an application’s set parameters.

This move by WhatsApp could very well just be the addition of a quality of life feature. Or maybe it’s a portent of the future transience of knowledge and discourse in an online world.

Or maybe we shouldn’t overthink it, and just use this when autocorrect screws us over.

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