From Facebook to Snapchat: the shift from traditional to ephemeral social media and a deontological approach to privacy issues.
As we know from paper one, we live in a society in which our businesses are run based on the shareholder theory, in which short-term rewards are considered to be the best kind of returns. We continue to focus our energy, talent, and innovation on getting the biggest returns in the shortest time possible. In every sector of the economy, we are becoming a society that wants everything now, regardless of the consequences. This is true to such an extent that Paul Roberts describes our society as the Impulse Society. In this impulsive society, our capacity to focus on one activity has decreased meaningfully due to the increasing amount of information that is thrown at us constantly. In fact, The TIME has reported that our attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, which means that we are able to focus one third less time than we used to. In addition, an average individual stays on a website between 10-20 seconds. Just as our attention span has reduced, our behaviour online and the way we interact with social media have changed too. In this paper, I analyse how privacy has played an important role in the shift of teens and young adults from traditional to ephemeral social media, such as Facebook and Snapchat respectively. This shift, I believe, has raised some ethical questions respecting the handling of privacy by Snapchat at several points of its life.
Facebook, the social media giant that has reached 1.6 billion users, seems to be the last victim of our need for spontaneity. According to an increasing amount of teens and young adults, Facebook is not cool anymore. Rather, a desire for spontaneity and privacy has driven this target segment to other applications and social networks. Snapchat, currently Facebook’s biggest threat, is one of these applications. Snapchat was started as project for one of Evan Spiegel’s classes in Stanford University. It started off having the name of Pictaboo and was first launched in 2011 from his living room. The story of how Spiegel became the owner of Snapchat is quite reminiscent to the way Zuckerberg ended up possessing Facebook after managing to improve the idea of some of his fellow colleagues; he managed to keep the company, even though it was Reggie Brown who brought the idea for a disappearing pictures app to him. This subject was a matter of dispute for many years, during which Brown sued Spiegel and Murphy. In 2014, Snapchat’s owners decided to settle the filed lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.
During those years, Snapchat went through several transformations. In its first blog post, communication method the company uses to correspond with its customers, the company described its mission as: Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment. It’s about communicating with the full range of human emotion — not just what appears to be pretty or perfect. In their mission statement, we are able to see clearly the problem that Snapchat is trying to solve with their company. They present their company as the solution to stresses caused by traditional picture handling, which involved the permanency and longevity of the personal information on social media. Facebook is the perfect example. On this more traditional social media network, the activity that users partake in has a general sense of permanency, reason for which there has been a general increase in the number of people polishing their pictures, detagging compromising pictures, and thinking about what kind of information to post. These series of actions have increasingly taken place place due to the switch of the demographics of the Facebook users. Daily usage of Facebook between the ages of 34-45 and 45-54 is up significantly year over year. At this point in time, it is a reasonable assessment to make that parents and family are Facebook users and are able to see the activity of their children. This is not the only concern, however. Due to the widespread utilization of Facebook, it has become the social media site that everybody uses to identify an individual. HR representatives from various companies admittedly use Facebook to evaluate their candidates and make decisions based on their findings. This has created an environment, in which users feel not only responsible but also burdened by the necessity of managing a digital version of themselves and making sure that their profile is perfectly polished. Consequently, the spontaneity and cool vibe that Facebook has once had has been increasingly abandoned for Snapchat. In their attempt to bring the fun of spontaneity back into the digital world, Snapchat has created the concept of a selfie, a self-taken picture of oneself that can be the ugliest, silliest, and most compromising picture the user wants. The beautiful part, and the one that creates the moral problem that I will talk about later, is that once the “selfie” is sent and opened by the destinatary it disappears forever.
The possibility of continuing sharing, chatting, and surfing the web without having to worry about their private communications going public has created Snapchat as a new choice for teens and young adults. The promise of ultimate privacy is the company’s selling point: you get to use an app that protects your online activities to help you maintain your privacy, by destroying all correspondence and photo shares through the app after they are viewed. This promise of privacy is not unique to Snapchat, since there are a growing number of apps that make data ephemeral. This is due to the fact that people are starting to realize that the context of a post can be misunderstood, and that it would be better to be more in control over the exchanges of data. This is why “ephemeral messages are incredibly freeing and make people communicate more authentically and freely with their friends”(Jeremy Liew, Snapchat investor). Even though the nature of the ephemeral messages on Snapchat may hint at times at a growing trend of people having something to hide, it is not the case. Rather, it is a way in which our society is challenging the status quo. More traditional social networks, like Facebook, “constantly remind us of who we were, not who we are”. It “constraints seeing ourselves and each other evolving over time and changing”. We recognize that every realm of our life is continuously changing, including ourselves and the application allows us to be our real selves, because the print does not stay there forever.
In order to be able to capture the continuously changing dynamic of our lives and the complexity of our emotions, Snapchat has developed their app in many ways since its inception. Until the winter of 1012, Snapchat consisted in a no-revenue mobile app that was available solely on IOS. Its functioning was neat and easy to use. The application required the use of the camera on the user’s smartphone to take a picture. Then the user was able to doodle on the picture taken, set a timer from 1-10 seconds, and send it to any of the Snapchat usernames that were previously added. Once sent, the receiver had two options. One, he could open the snapchat by pressing on it and keep pressing for a time period that could not exceed the sender’s set time. Once the time was over or the receiver stopped pressing on the screen, the snapchat disappeared and could not be viewed again. Second, the receiver had the option of ignoring the snapchat and not press on it.
However, Snapchat wanted to expand both the experience as well as the number of consumers and by December of 2012 Snapchat launched on Android and introduced video snaps that works in the exact same way as picture snaps. To add to their mission of increasing the user’s ability to communicate in a wide variety of ways, in October 2013, Snapchat launched Snapchat Stories, which is “ephemerality’s take on a timeline.” These “stories are compilations of Snaps that create a narrative. Stories honor the true nature of storytelling – Snaps appear in chronological order with a beginning, middle, and end” (Snapchat Blog). One month later, seeing that its popularity kept increasing, they decided to take on Instagram by adding filters, timestamps, temperature, and speed overlays. In addition, they added the ability to replay snaps. Filters once again improve the experience of users to gain a new way to make their snaps and stories custom and unique, while the replay function enables them to view one snap per day for free again and pay for more repetitions. In order to make their app more versatile, in May of the following year, Snapchat added text conversations and video chat to the app. To send a chat, the user has to swipe right on a friend’s name. This allows users to use Snapchat like IMessage or Facebook messenger. Second to last, in order to increase the time people spent on Snapchat, they launched Our Story, which lets you add snaps to a single, event-based Story, regardless of friendship within the app of the attendees.
And finally, in January 2015, the Snapchat team found a way to monetize their business. With Discover, a daily refreshed channel guide serving up disappearing content alongside brand advertisements, the company was able to partner with 11 publishers including CNN, Comedy Central, ESPN, and Vice. Through this partnering, Snapchat is said to be making $100 per thousand views. Considering that each publisher could potentially receive millions of views a day, it is not hard to see how the revenue adds up to be quite significant. In addition, the publisher has the option of using its space for its own ads with the condition that it splits the profits with Snapchat.
However, it is not all flowers and daisies for Snapchat. At the very beginning of 2014, Snapchat’s own servers were attacked and hit by a cyber attack. The hackers reportedly exposed the usernames and phone numbers of 4.6 million users. This was the first breach that took place in the privacy of the users. The second breach took place some months after the first charges were settled. In October, over 100, 000 snapchat photos were accessed and leaked, many containing underage nude pictures.
These two privacy breaches illustrate the complexities of assigning liability on the Internet when apps, networks, and servers are increasingly interconnected. I will attempt to analyse each of these two breaches from a deontological point of view. Deontology is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules.
The first hack, which takes place on Snapchat’s servers, is more problematic. The reason for this is that since the company marketed its “privacy and security as key selling point in pitching its service to consumers, it is critical that it keeps those promises. Snapchat lied to its consumers at several points in time. First, it described its photo and video messages as ephemeral and promised that they would disappear once the sender-designated time period expired, in spite of the fact that consumers could use third-party apps to log into Snapchat and download any content. Second, it promised to notify the server any times a recipient took a screenshot, while any recipient with an older Apple iOS was able to do it. Third, it collected geolocation information, despite saying that it did not track of access such information. Fourth, it promised that video snaps would be deleted once viewed, but in reality any recipient could connect their device to a computer and access the video. Since broken promises and lies are considered to be undutiful, Snapchat was morally responsible for this first breach.
The second breach is more complicated, since it was a third-party app, Snapsave, that was hacked. This third-party app did not have Snapchat’s approval to take pictures and videos from the company. In addition, the company had updated their privacy policies since the last incident and it made clear to its users that it is up by using the app they “acknowledge and agree that [Snapchat is] not responsible for how those third parties collect or use your information (Snapchat blog).” These conditions given, the question becomes whether we can hold Snapchat liable for the leak of picture and video messages. According to deontology, Snapchat was being dutiful and following the rules and policies that they have in place. Thus Snapchat was doing something good since they were doing a morally right action.
I believe that the dilemma posed by Snapchat and Snapsave is complex and crucial at a time when an increasing amount of tech companies are, in a regular basis, sharing some of their code, programs, and data with developers to encourage them to create applications that attract traffic back to their sites. Even bigger of a problem is that data out there does not have the protection that it needs. While companies say that they have put measures into regulating data flow, like creating service agreements and restrictions on them, the reality is that they do not enforce those policies. On top of this, they argue that it should be users who should take steps to protect their own privacy, while the reality is that even “if you don’t share your personal data, there are other people sharing data about you.” This is the reason why it is essential for companies to keep data security in mind in every situation. As Professor Werbach says, even “if technically the vulnerability comes from a third party application, and legally Snapchat is protected by its terms of service, it [still] has to be careful about gaining a reputation as an insecure service.” This said, although from a deontology point of view Snapchat did not do any wrong actions when third party apps were hacked, it should take – and has taken – measures to block third party application from accessing its data in order to ensure its business success as a reliable company.
Sources (In order of usage)
- “Ethics-virtue”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Ethics for the Information Age by Michael J. Quinn
- Moralizing Technology by Peter Paul Verbeek.