Why SnapDown? Jun 16 2013

A few days ago I created a site called SnapDown which allows the user to access the photos sent to them via SnapChat. It is based in the work of another programmer Thomas Lackner.

To understand why this is important allow me to explain a bit about SnapChat. SnapChat is a service that allows its users to send each other photo and video files, tagged with text or drawings, and set a time limit on how long that image can be shown. The time is very short, 10 seconds maximum. In some ways I see this as the photographic equivalent of a Tweet; short and transient. Of course on Twitter the content stays online as long as you don't delete it. However, because the content of tweets are so limited the value attached to the tweet rarely stays around very long. Even if the effect lasts forever.

The concept of disposable content is an old one. But in this age of persistent storage it is not very common anymore. The threat of having a picture of you in an Ugly Sweater Contest be used against you a few years from now takes some of the fun out of things. The designers of SnapChat state that their intention was to put some of the fun back in the technology of sharing. With removing the fear of having to maintain your appearance on the Internet, people are freed up to be more themselves.

The natural conclusion of this technology that most people I've spoken to, and I'm sure parents immediately think of, is sexting. And the designers certainly don't deny that this is a possibility, however they contend that the majority of the content is perfectly clean and harmless fun. Oh, I absolutely believe them.

There is something going on with services like this that older people such as myself will probably never quite understand. But as I grew up in the generation that brought about the apex of instant access and distribution, I see control of the content as the next step in the process. How often is the lack of control over one's online image bemoaned by the tech media and scaremongers alike? Technologies like this are the first tentative steps into a world where we actually control directly who receives our content, and for how long.

If I like and believe in a technology such as this, why make it easy to circumvent the protections in place?

All great systems are developed over a series of refinements. Nothing is ever built perfect and useful on the first go. And when it comes to privacy we have been refining our system for hundreds of years. If the boundaries weren't tested then there wouldn't be progress either.

I feel that SnapDown stands as a reminder that whenever your send something out into the world, you will inevitably lose control over. And that any limitations we place are superficial at best. But through that iterative process of build, break, and fix, we may create a system that is as close to perfection as human beings will be able to discern.

Also, if you allow me to dabble in that world that parents fear for just a second, SnapDown should serve as a warning that if you are the kind of person who shares pictures of a personal nature with individuals you do not trust implicitly then you really shouldn't rely on a piece of technology to save you. I make no judgment on people who engage in that activity. More power to them. But doing so only under a false sense of security can lead to dangerous circumstances.

Please enjoy this little experiment in social disturbance while it lasts, and let me know on Twitter if you found the service interesting or useful.

- Matthew