I know that the Ephemeralization of 2014 is generally traced to some privacy potion of Edward Snowden, NSA, and Target credit card leaks, but few seem willing to track its popularity back to its source – Oracle.
You see, Oracle’s marketing people are geniuses. Following the continued outrage over today’s perilous state of MySQL, the open-source database acquired through its acquisition of Sun Microsystems, the Oracle marketing team had a sudden epiphany. Truncated data and missing rows aren’t bugs – they’re now mission-critical features! MySQL isn’t a stodgy piece of engineering – it is “The Original Ephemeral Database” (trademark pending).
How else can we explain that the core feature of this year’s vanguard of social apps is that they actively lose data?
Humans didn’t read the Guardian this year and suddenly think that forgetting things was a good idea. In fact, we’ve been pretty good about forgetting information since the Greeks lost power and Socrates complained about how writing causes memory loss. Despite our best efforts at preserving our civilization through paper and the printing press, much still disappears in the annals of history. Even human conversation is fundamentally Ephemeral, and we’ve been doing that since at least 1995, and maybe even earlier if my sources are correct.
What has changed is that Ephemerality is now a Thing. It is this year’s SoLoMo, the bumper sticker zeitgeist of Silicon Valley product managers and founders that allows us all to elide cumbersome explanations in our product pitches and get everyone onto the same vision. Our very own Matthew Panzarino argues that ephemerality is among the most important trends in the consumer Internet today, and he is absolutely right.
But we, as a whole, are wrong. Ephemerality, or its more risible manifestation, Anonymous Ephemerality, is not the well-spring of future growth in consumer social products. It is the last ditch hope of a generation of social entrepreneurs who are trying to secure the last jackpot before the casino shuts down.
Without the power of identity to prioritize our incoming information, these apps quickly become an endless stream of groupthink and stereotypes that just aren’t interesting after a few days of engaging with them.
It is avant-garde to talk about freeing users to express themselves authentically. Ordinary people have seemingly been holed up in their anti-social bubbles by the klieg lights on Facebook and Twitter, and now, finally, they have the ability to express their innermost feelings. And what are those feelings? “I accidentally dropped my sandwich on the floor” and “I really like the guy sitting next to me at work.” These deep, penetrating insights are precisely why our societies inculcate certain social inhibitions in children in the first place.
There is a reason why television shows, books, movies and other mediums absorb so much of our time each day. Our lives are fundamentally routine, and thus, little snippets of our lives really aren’t that interesting when shared with the world. Tripping down the stairs may get a rise out of a handful of your closest friends, but does the rest of the world need to know such information?
And what about the more serious content on these sites, such as drug usage, depression, suicide, and death? While it may appear at first that Anonymous Ephemeral apps have the potential to release these people’s pent up emotions, we need to remember that social networks are just another channel for entertainment. People want to be amused, shocked, outraged, and a dozen other emotions listed on the BuzzFeed website. Rarely do people want to think about serious things, otherwise, we wouldn’t have to sit through hours of reality TV shows.
I admit I am being derisive here, and at a certain level of peril to boot. In its early days, Twitter wasn’t recognized as a destination of choice for interesting commentary or news or celebrity gossip, as its early users had a tendency to clog up the stream with tweets about every single banality around them. Yet, something is fundamentally different between Twitter and Anonymous Ephemeral apps. Twitter’s model became democratizing broadcast communications, complementing Facebook’s friend network. There remains deep value there.
There is nothing deep about Anonymous Ephemeral apps. Without the power of identity to prioritize our incoming information, these apps quickly become an endless stream of groupthink and stereotypes that just aren’t interesting after a few days of engaging with them. And the business model – and I know we are never supposed to talk about that in social – but the business model here is stupefying.
If there is one thing that benefits zeitgeist companies, it is the number of mature companies that need the zeitgeist beneath their wings.
Advertising doesn’t work, because advertisers need to know who is seeing their ads. Subscriptions don’t really work, because if you subscribe, suddenly all of your posts are connected to your credit card. It’s the old question mark then profit mentality that is the hallmark of this constellation in the startup universe.
Perhaps even more challenging for these apps, building platform companies is nearly impossible in a situation where a user lacks identity. Once the core novelty of chatting anonymously dies off, what is left? There is no functionality that is going to continue drawing users back to the site, or even to stay engaged once competitors introduce their own social gimmicks.
I think these apps are indeed trying to reach for something deeper in each of us. But what we are searching for is human contact – flesh-and-blood conversation that is as equally ephemeral as it is engaging. All the UX-wizardry of Secret and Whisper has failed to emulate even a thousandth of the user experience of face-to-face conversation. It’s time to stop muddling people’s reaction to the permanence of their information with their renewed desire for high-quality, sincere human relationships.
While the state of affairs sounds disastrous, one thing is certain – these apps will make money. Or more specifically, nice exits. If there is one thing that benefits zeitgeist companies, it is the number of mature companies that need the zeitgeist beneath their wings. Someone will pay top dollar to get the cool kids inside the building for a little while. So don’t be surprised when the news comes out, just post it on Secret and forget about it.