For many of its users, the biggest appeal of Snapchat is that when an image has been opened, it can never be opened again. It exists solely for that fleeting moment, and then it’s gone forever. Quite why that’s such a big appeal to people varies from user to user, although it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see some of its possible uses. Regardless of who it’s used by or why, it’s one of the things that’s always set Snapchat apart from the Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp. That won’t be the case for much longer. WhatsApp is about to introduce disappearing messages and muscle in on Snapchat’s territory.
With Snapchat, pictures usually disappear after one viewing by default unless both parties in a conversation adjust the default setting. That won’t be the case with WhatsApp. The sender decides whether a photo is intended to be temporary or permanent before it’s sent, with the recipient getting no say in the matter. The image is not stored on the recipient’s phone, nor is it stored on WhatsApp’s servers. Once it’s been viewed, it no longer exists in any format. The company says it’s a move that should give people more control over their privacy. Critics say it’s a naked attempt to steal users from Snapchat.
This is nowhere near the first time Facebook or a Facebook-owned company has stood accused of pillaging features from rival companies. Last year Instagram made an unsuccessful attempt to copy TikTok’s functionality with a new short-form video format called “Reels.” The feature’s name makes it sound more like something you’d find on an online slots website than a social media app.
There’s even irony in that because Facebook has tried (and largely failed) to make money from online slots by hosting them on its primary website in the past. It turns out that people want to play slots online somewhere other than Facebook. It also turned out that people were happy using TikTok for their short-form videos. Even though WhatsApp has considerably more users than Snapchat does, it might yet prove to be the case that people who want to send single-use photos are happier using Snapchat to send them than they are with the idea of entrusting them to Facebook.
The idea that a picture sent in Snapchat is safe because it automatically gets deleted is false. There’s nothing to prevent the recipient from taking a screenshot of the image while it’s open and saving it to their phone or other media. Snapchat alerts the sender that a screenshot has been taken but can’t prevent it from happening. It isn’t yet clear whether WhatsApp will even alert the sender.
An image sent from one person to another can never be one hundred per cent safe regardless of the restrictions placed upon it because someone who intends to misuse that photo will do so regardless. With that in mind, critics of the idea say that this is a move with no positives but multiple negatives. Campaign groups who already say that Facebook doesn’t do enough to combat abuse and exploitation on its platforms feel that this new feature is likely to make things worse.
Unsurprisingly, WhatsApp doesn’t see it that way. Examples the company has given for times a user might want to use a ‘view once’ photo include personal ‘moments in time,’ for example, trying on an outfit in a shop and sending a picture to your partner to ask how it looks.
Sending important information like a password for a computer network could be sent as a one-time message, although it would make more sense to do this as a self-destructing text than a self-destructing picture. WhatsApp has not yet included self-destructing text messages as a feature.
The move hasn’t gone down well with law enforcement agencies, which have long-standing issues with WhatsApp. The end-to-end encryption techniques employed by the platform make it physically impossible for data to be intercepted in transit, and means copies aren’t stored on WhatsApp’s servers.
Unless a suspect unlocks a phone for a police officer, it’s already difficult for police to obtain incriminating WhatsApp messages on a phone. If the contents of those messages can now be automatically deleted and made impossible to retrieve, their job becomes even harder. On the other side of the fence are privacy campaigners, who like the idea for the exact same reason. WhatsApp and Facebook have shown no inclination to change their stance on double-ended encryption and are unlikely to do so unless forced by a court.
While WhatsApp is switching itself on to self-deleting messages, Twitter is switching itself off. In 2020, the social media platform launched “Fleets” – a clever name that intended to be understood as “fleeting Tweets.” In what was a fairly carbon copy of Instagram’s “Stories” feature, a “Fleet” would remain online for 24 hours after being posted and then vanish into the ether forever.
Twitter hoped the new feature would become a big deal when it went live less than a year ago. Instead, it bombed. Short-term messaging isn’t what people wanted from Twitter, and so the company has embarrassingly had to admit that it got things wrong and discontinue the service. Fleets became permanently unavailable on August 3rd. Given Twitter’s struggles with the format, one has to wonder what makes WhatsApp think they’ll have better luck.
Internet history tells us that (with a few notable exceptions) copied features don’t perform well elsewhere. While Facebook got away with it a little in its early years, audiences are now far smarter about who came up with a concept and who’s copying who. WhatsApp users will recognise this as a Snapchat thing and will treat it accordingly. That’s what we’ve come to expect. That could be wrong, though.
WhatsApps superior user numbers might be the decisive factor here. If the majority of Snapchat users already have WhatsApp accounts, they might ask themselves what the point of keeping two apps is when they could get away with using one. It all depends on how well executed the idea is and the extent to which users are willing to trust WhatsApp with personal photos and information. The feature will rolled out across the world within the next week, so we won’t have to wait long to find out.