Transience in Social Technologies

Categories Interaction, Social, Technology

Real life is dynamic and transitory.


Day to day communication exists in it’s moment of context and (for the most part) that’s it. Luckily, everything you’ve ever said or done hasn’t been recorded and archived. It doesn’t need to be. [Edit: Unless you’re the NSA, in which case you suck communications straight from the faucet to be filed away]


Conversely, social networks are mostly static and perpetual.


This means that our social tools and our social behaviours meet at an awkward divide. We don’t necessarily want to interact in an environment of forever.


Communication in real life can be flippant, idle, playful, not-for-archival, transitory, momentary, uncrafted and raw – it doesn’t have to be, but it does serve certain function to be at times. The truth can be best delivered by the spoken word. It’s why a phone-call is often a better way to discuss serious or emotionally heated matters than the perpetual, stilted, everlasting, re-assessable world of the text message. The text message can exist within it’s temporal context and outside it, it can contain subtext that only grows with it’s permanence.


There aren’t many social tools that acknowledge this divide. What results is warped behaviour.



The Guardian, UK. The future of social interaction.


It’s long been apparent that a person’s online persona (such as a facebook profile, tumblr page or twitter account) is a curated version of their own life and not an accurate reflection of that person – not a new concept, consider the useful social “masks” we all wear on a daily basis. The effect is, however, heavily amplified by the perceived (and actual) permanence of the “profile”. The existence of a social receipt of every interpersonal transaction you’ve made on a social network. Eventually, we learned to brand ourselves, to periodically check and bask in our own image, to actively compare ourselves to each other in an easily cross-referenced, standardised format.


Ever noticed how human behaviour changes around the presence of a camera? That’s because a sense of permanence has just been introduced to a transitory environment. Interactions become crafted, more curated and less a reflection of the usual.


And though permanence is incredibly useful, it doesn’t describe the rightful state of all social interactions.


“The internet is forever.”


Well, let’s pretend it isn’t.


Data can be useless. Delete it. Let it fall into non-storage. The lack of transience devalues some communication by valuing it too much. Non-permanent information and communication serves a different function to permanent information.


A great example of the validity of non-permanent communication is Snapchat, a photo-sharing application that enforces transience. The app works as follows:


  1. You take a photo
  2. You specify the photo’s lifespan (in seconds)
  3. You send the photo to another user
  4. The photo is received, viewed and auto-deleted after the specified lifespan.


Snapchat takes the existing functionality of a social tool (picture messaging) and adds the element of enforced transience (auto-deletion). What we see is that Snapchat is used for much different forms of communication than the standard MMS functionality of modern phones. The non-permanent nature of the communication leads to more playful and perhaps baser interactions such as frivolity and flirting – these modes of communication are no less socially enriching than others. Snapchat is successful because it caters to our need to communicate digitally outside of a permanent environment.


Transient content, self-destructing media and perhaps degradable social connections are surely things to consider implementing in future social media environments. Ubiquitious or wearable computers and near-field communicators will hopefully bring about the data we will need to create honest social network technologies.