Has Snapchat changed or have we?

There was a wave of mild hysteria last week when it was revealed that a forensic software company had figured out how to recover deleted files from Snapchat. A passing familiarity with Snapchat is probably required to understand why that’s a “big deal.”

Snapchat is an app that enables users to send pictures or short videos to friends. The catch, though, is that it lets users set a time limit (at a maximum of ten seconds), after which the image/video is deleted (or effectively deleted) off the recipients device. As an added precaution, should the recipient take a screenshot of your image/video (which was, until last week, the only known workaround to this time limit), you will be notified as such via text message.

In other words, it seeks to battle the “problem” (i.e. generally the benefit) of digital communication, which is that it is recorded and filed for posterity.

If one-to-one phone messaging reveals a more private and less risk-averse personality than the one-to-many communication of social broadcasting, then Snapchat sought to push that even further by keeping it one-to-one and further restricting the time that the message was available for viewing.

Given these features of the app, it’s probably no surprise that it’s developed a reputation as a channel for “sexting.” (In case you can’t untangle that ingenious portmanteau, “sexting” is the sharing of sexually explicit photos via phone messages). Sexting (or similar interactions) existed before Snapchat over smart phones, and before that over email, and before that via disposable cameras. But it was the impermanence of Snapchat that didn’t exist elsewhere that arguably (if its reputation is to be believed) precipitated a rise in such activity. In an age when Scarlett Johansen’s naked mirror selfies can be hacked and shared online, it created the feeling of privacy and security and invited participation from the more risk averse among us.

In other words, many Snapchat users have shared photos that are either compromising or even just embarrassing under the impression that any evidence would be non-existent.

That, in essence, is why the revelation that those images are not actually deleted is causing a stir .

As usual, there’s a few thing things to consider here beyond the hype.

The first, as TechCrunch points out, is the nature of deletion. In short, nothing has actually changed here. Snapchat files are still deleted in the sense that you or I or even a tech wizard probably wouldn’t be able to retrieve them.

They are not, however, completely and permanently and unquestionably deleted.  Forensic software, as it turns out, can still find and restore files. But there is a big difference between forensic software and a phone hack like those that have affected many a vain celebrity, but it’s a distinction that was missing in many of the first wave of stories covering the issue.

Forensic software is expensive and proprietary and is designed for the exact purpose of recovering deleted files. We’re talking about the same software used for investigations into insider trading and child pornography. In other words, it’s serious business. But, even then, it still requires physical access to the physical (specifically, to the hard drive in it) in order to run the software.

In other words, of course the files from a recreational smart phone app aren’t entirely irretrievable (it essentially says as much in the End User Agreement). But they’re no less irretrievable than most other files.

It’s a non-story. Or at least it should have been. The fact that it managed to get traction at all – the fact that a forensic software company bothered to develop a method for retrieving Snapchat files – says more about our relationship (and, possibly, newfound obsession) with the illusion of impermanence than the app’s functionality.

Users were always opening themselves up to some degree of risk insofar as the recipient could, as mention, take a screenshot. This latest revelation doesn’t really have any more of a practical impact on your reputation/dignity than that. But then we knew that and we accepted that.

There’s a number of reasons this gained the traction it did beyond the initial panic (which, presumably, has died down). The first is that it briefly threatened to disrupt the boundaries we erect between our private and public selves. It also threatened to collapse the representations we’d been crafting of ourselves via the device. Brief glimpses of the way we are perhaps in person, pulling the faces we pull or saying the things we would say to a person next to us, because they create an impression, not an artefact of who we are, the latter arguably given greater weight and skewing the impressions we wished to create.

It also has to do with a somewhat of a collective comedown, that the impermanence of these physical interactions that we thought we could achieve online was something of an illusion. While, as noted, there is little practical change here, there is a psychological difference between then and now. It’s probably too early to tell whether this subtle change in our impression of Snapchat will lead to a significant change in usage patterns.