One of the central conceits of the Internet is that once something is published, it is out in public forever. This is so basic an idea that sitcom characters were joking about back in 1996 (1996!). But in the post-Snowden age, there is greater interest in being able to limit the data shared on the Internet, or to be able to scrub your data later. New laws and a flurry of new products could help make Internet content more ephemeral.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown just signed a bill that would give users under the age of 18 the ability to purge their social media profiles from the Internet. This may be welcome news for kids who want to have fun, but also want to get into good schools, get good jobs, etc. A report from May 2013 found that 1 in 10 young job applicants missed out on a job due to a social media post and that nearly one-third of Millennials regret some social media posts.
But an alternative to scrubbing data from the Internet is limiting its lifespan. This is the premise behind mobile photo-messaging app Snapchat, which allows user to set a lifespan for how long a message will last in the recipient’s in-box before self-deleting. The service has become wildly popular, with users sending 350 million messages a day. The ‘self-destruct’ feature means that users can send pictures that might be questionable, with less chance they will become permanent.
Akin to Snapchat is a web-based picture service called BlinkLink, which limits the number of people who could view your photo. But whereas Snapchat sets a time limit, BlinkLink sets a viewer limit. Users can set the number of viewers who can see the picture and once the click-through is reached, the photo disappears.
While privacy and control are prime functions of Snapchat, BlinkLink’s limited viewership (which also offers privacy) reveals a second benefit of these kinds of apps: Exclusivity. By publicizing content on Snapchat or BlinkLink and then limiting access to it, via time or number of viewers, users can create exclusivity and demand for their content. Brands looking to generate buzz for new products could do so through the ‘limited-time-only’ features of these apps.
Of course, if none of these laws or apps are enough for you, you could use lasers to create a ‘time hole’ and effectively erase your data from time.