The Impermanent Internet

Posted by

The Internet is like an elephant: it never forgets.

Whether it’s a deep cache, a like on Facebook, a retweet, a simple Google search, a screen capture or more, it seems like the Internet is a massive repository for everything that we do – in text, images, audio and video – that lives on in perpetuity (whether we like it or not). For some, that is a good thing. For others, it can be somewhat regrettable. In my first book, Six Pixels of Separation, I make the case for being both active in the online channels and careful of how you create content within it, because it will always be a part of search results, algorithms or more. As the digital age evolves, we are also allocating real value to digital items (think about the e-books that you buy or the songs that you pick up on iTunes). We pay for digital things (and value them) much in the same way that we buy physical items. But, what if the future of the Internet wasn’t about that. What if the future of the Internet was no longer about creating the same value for digital items that we have for physical items. What if the future of the Internet wasn’t about creating these long legacies and online diaries of our lives in multimedia? What if the future of the Internet was about fast, temporary pieces of content that are here right now and gone a little bit after that?

The temporary Internet of things.

It started with Netflix and Spotify. Suddenly, there is no need to own a handful of movies or music when – for a subscription fee – you can have access to entire libraries of content on-demand. The value of content shifted from owning stuff to having access to everything. It suddenly became worth it to not own anything in lieu of having access to everything. Ownership of content is becoming less and less important to consumers as streaming becomes more and more accessible. While some will simply glaze over this shift in consumerism, it is a massive deal in terms of understanding the new consumer. More recently, Snapchat, has been gaining momentum (hat-tip to Joseph Jaffe for introducing it to me). With Snapchat, users take a picture (or short video) and send it to friends via their smartphones. That’s no great innovation. What makes Snapchat interesting is that the picture (or video) can only be seen by the recipient for a couple of seconds after they have opened it. After that, poof! It’s gone (like Keyser Soze). All of the content shared on Snapchat is temporary. So, what’s the point? Young people are currently driving the growth of Snapchat (which many people see as a contender to the Instagram throne) because of that very reason. They have no need to keep this stuff on a hard drive, they’re creating content much in the same way we used to have conversations in the pre-Internet days (did you ever think of archiving your face-to-face conversations?). They’re also probably flocking to Snapchat because it’s not Facebook or Twitter (where their parents and teachers are). Sure, you can grab a screenshot of a picture sent to you (which, when done, Snapshot sends a notification to the creator of the content that this has taken place) and yes, it’s also known to also have tons of porn on it (go, figure), but there is something happening here that is worth studying: perhaps this is the beginning of a new, temporary, kind of Internet that none of us ever expected.

The digital hoarder.

There’s no doubt that there is a massive need for better management and storage of our digital selves (from banking and health records to family pictures and the documents that we create), but beyond that, are we moving into an era of enlightenment that doesn’t require us to store, keep and manage things like a quick little chat between friends and more? Snapchat may well be a fad, but it could also be the continuum of something more. At the end of last week, All Things D ran a news item titled, Facebook to Launch Its Own Snapchat Competitor App. From the article: "Facebook is currently testing its own built-in-house version of a ‘Snapchat-like’ application, a messaging app that allows users to send impermanent photo messages to one another, according to sources familiar with the matter… Facebook’s new app is another in a string of the company’s aggressive movements into the friend-to-friend communications space." Suddenly, having content that we create with the full knowledge that it will both self-destruct and be impermanent, could well usher in a new kind of content and consumer.

I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated by this and the marketing applications and opportunities that come with it.


  1. Hi there Mitch!
    I have 5 kids two of them are in their early teens and something that is interesting about them is that they really have no need or desire to really own things. Their a temporary in the moment generation. As well a good friend if mine is in their twenties and he’s all about living a sound-byte life.
    I think this trend will keep growing (segmented social and more private social networking apps) but don’t buy too much stock in them or invest too much time bc I think the churn rate on these things will be high.

  2. I agree with you that this trend will keep growing. It seems like a natural evolution for some types of data.
    For example, every time I go to download photos off my phone, I first need to delete hundreds of “non-photos” that are not archive-worthy.
    These non-photos are mostly ones I have taken as a way of giving context to other information/content (for example, the ones I take in conjunction with Four Square check-ins — which, some times can embarrassingly number in the hundreds — and photos I took of interesting packaging, branding or marketing I see when I’m out and about and tweet to discuss with my network.)
    None of these pics have the same value as pictures of my kid. They simply serve as an additional piece of meta data attached to my content.

  3. Hi Mitch,
    Snapchat is à very interesting service, thanks for sharing this. I also think the impermanent web is à very useful concept. There is certainly à value in what is short-lived. Too much emphasis on storing our past digital life is a strong emphasis on the past. I think Snapchat service is somehow healthy – and might help us maintain some spontaneity in à world otherwise gone “official”

  4. Do we actually believe any external for profit company when they say this time they really honestly promise not to store, keep, use, or exploit our content this time, really honestly? Facebook now owns Instragram, right? Hmmm.
    And this week, Twitter announced they are working on a tool that will allow users to download every tweet they ever posted.
    If you don’t want it on the internet – temporarily or permanently – don’t post it on the internet. But just in case, I’m sorry, it wasn’t me, I know mullets aren’t cool, it was off the record, I was angry, I didn’t mean it.

  5. The other day I sent my 4 year old off to his first sleepover at a friends house. Firstly, big moment in any parents lives. But the thing that struck me when they asked to send a movie, was that I really don’t own physical copies of movies anymore. A few classic Pixar 1080p Blu-Rays (when that was the only way to produce the wow factor from your HDTV), that we have picked up over his first 4 years, but now most of what we own are digital versions that we can call up on any device, wherever we are. The next domain for me will be when we can send our kids (or us for that matter) with a temporary version of their fav movie, from our digital collection, that they can watch… and then poof (I always think Mission Impossible when I cue the self destruct), away it goes…

  6. I agree with Kneal. Better watch out what you post to the internet. It’s forever. Even Snapchat was hacked. We still have our hard copies of videos. Maybe a lot of people have experience the old ‘hard-drive crash’ when we lost all of our data. That experience for some harrowing, for other’s taught them to ‘let-go’. I believe the next generation will have plenty of kids wanting to own their own things and another set wanting to live frugally, freely and without anything to weigh them down. There are all kinds of people in this world.

Comments are closed.