New Trend: Be Invisible Online 

snapchat

Businesses spend years and millions of dollars making it easier for customers to find them online, but an emerging trend suggests they also are seeking ways to be invisible.

A study last year from the Pew Internet Research Project found that most internet users would like to be anonymous online at least occasionally. The report said that 86 percent of users have taken steps to remove or mask their digital footprints—ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their email, from avoiding using their name to using virtual networks that mask their internet address.

Technology companies have created ways to use the latest techno trappings—but without leaving a digital paper trail. I have often mused that being “off the grid” and therefore not beholden to technology could become the new status symbol, but in the meantime, some new offerings strive to hide and even erase online activities.

Most of us are aware that we can turn off web browser settings that track our history. Private browsing makes sense when you are using someone else’s computer, want to view pages without historical cookies influencing performance, or want to keep your web activity private. One survey from a couple of years ago suggests that nearly 20 percent of web surfers have used private browsing.

Mobile app Snapchat enables users to share photos and short videos via text message, but the catch is that they disappear after 30 seconds. Originally thought of as a clever way to erase a “sexting” trail, the company is popular for sending selfies, funny pics and videos—not just illicit stuff. With the ongoing fear that a foolish text might come back to haunt us, perhaps this is a way to avoid future online reputation management problems. With this in mind, it is not surprising that investors are enthusiastic about its myriad uses: Snapchat recently received another $20 million in venture capital on top of its other investments, bringing its value up to $10 billion.

The potential to make billions will always inspire competition, and the emergence of Snapchat has drawn the attention of tech billionaire Mark Cuban. The Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star recently launched Cyber Dust, another text messaging app that—you guessed it—enables you to send texts that disappear and can’t be tracked. Cuban says he was inspired by a desire to have online conversations that are more like face-to-face communications. In the offline world, normal one-on-one conversations are not recorded, so after something is said, it’s gone. Cuban says his text messages in the past have been subpoenaed, misinterpreted and manipulated by lawyers after the fact.

And then there’s GoTenna. This one’s not an app but rather a personalized antenna that enables you to send text messages to another person also equipped with the same device and located within a few miles. Advertising suggests it’s a way to stay in touch when traveling in remote areas—like a group of hikers staying connected in an area without cell service. Marketers also say it’s a way for friends at a crowded outdoor event, like a concert, to communicate even if the mobile grid is overwhelmed. And according to GoTenna’s website, “Messages are end-to-end encrypted and not stored anywhere. They also can be set to self-destruct once the recipient reads it.”

Maybe I’m a cynic, but I originally thought there was something sneaky going on. Are we clamoring for ways to communicate more privately, or are these products designed to evade some other form of detection? However, the more I talk with people, the more I discover that many are craving online and offline privacy—and worrying that an online misstep will hurt them now or in the future. Plus, a $10 billion valuation of Snapchat says the smart money is on this being more trend than fad. Perhaps this digital version of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” will become part of how we all communicate online in the future. We say it — and then it’s gone.

What do you think? Are these new twists on communication based on a desire for simple privacy, or more on a desire to evade detection of untoward activities? Let me know.

Comments

  1. It is in our DNA to express ideas and opinions, probably because individuals and the human species benefit from rational discourse. The ability of the web to permanently attach them to us and to elevate the importance of the sound- or thought-byte reduces the net value of the self-expression gene. What are the implications for our future society? I have some thoughts about this, but I think I’d better keep them to myself.

    • Thanks, Michael. I can count of you for the big picture take. Somehow, I hope, that technology will be able to help us hold on to important digital memories — the video of the kid graduation from high school, or first steps, or something. While also helping us not have that memory lost among our digital crap — too many LOL text messages. Interesting times….

  2. George Macedo says:

    Thanks John. The market as a whole isn’t seeking Internet Privacy Products like SnapChat for nefarious reasons. That would be like saying everyone buys a gun to commit a crime. Is there a small minority or morally challenged humans that will use privacy products to cover their tracks? Yes, of course. But the vast majority of people seek privacy out of FEAR, and for good reason. By far, more and more people have experienced deep regret over past online posts, emails, Tweets or even a visit to a “questionable” website. They are the market, and it is growing. Any adversary can and will scour your digital footprint to collect everything that can benefit themselves, financially or otherwise. The pitfall of the attitude “there is nothing I’ve done to be ashamed of” is practically a proverb. The fallacy of that pride is you can quickly be flipped into a position where everyone is ashamed to be associated with you. It isn’t personal shaming that moves the needle. It is the public act of shunning that can gravely harm a human soul, or any business. I believe Steve Rambam properly Mirandized us when he presented “Privacy is dead-get over it.” In our society, everything you say, Tweet, email, text, or post, can and will be used against you.

  3. Manny Fernandez says:

    I believe there is a legitimate concern that in the current world of being overly politically correct that an off the cuff remark can be considered offensive depending on the reader. In most cases it was probably not the intent but once it’s on the internet it never goes away. Products like these will continue to come to the market because there will be a growing demand

    • Manny, thanks for reading and commenting. I agree with you. We forget how easily we are forgiven for misspeaking in most instances. But the online paper trail gives people a lot of time to analyze.

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