Disruptions: The Perfect App for Sexting
People once took photographs so they could capture a moment for themselves and keep it forever. Then digital cameras and cellphones turned photos into something more ephemeral and more easily shared. But as the case of Anthony Weiner demonstrated, photos that are shared but are not meant to last, sometimes stick around.
Mr. Weiner’s downfall does not seem to have discouraged people from sharing risqué photos. According to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project that is due out later this year, 6 percent of adult Americans admit to having sent a “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video” using a cellphone. Another 15 percent have received such material. Three percent of teenagers admit to sending sexually explicit content.
All of this sexting, as the practice is known, creates an opening for technology that might make the photos less likely to end up in wide circulation.
This is where a free and increasingly popular iPhone app called Snapchat comes in. Snapchat allows a person to take and send a picture and control how long it is visible by the person who receives it, up to 10 seconds. After that, the picture disappears and can’t be seen again. If the person viewing the picture tries to use an iPhone feature that captures an image of whatever is on the screen, the sender is notified.
The app’s description in the Apple App Store does not mention sexting. But the accompanying images are of scantily clad women, and Apple has designated the app as being for users 12 and older, warning of “mild sexual content or nudity.” Mentions of the app on Twitter indicate that many young people use it for photo-based banter with friends, though there are references to its less innocent potential.
So does Snapchat really allow people to safely share their bare essentials without fear of ending up in the tabloids?
Evan Spiegel, a Stanford University student who built the application with a friend, said in an e-mail that he was “completely absorbed with end-of-year projects at school” and unable to comment.
So I asked Michael Fertik, chief executive of reputation.com, an online reputation management service, if people could feel secure on Snapchat. He noted that it adds hurdles for those who want to breach the confidentiality of an image exchange.
“We know that friction is a very powerful tool to deter people from taking things that are meant to be private and sharing them,” Mr. Fertik said. “It’s probably impossible to completely deter people, but adding friction in a second-to-second environment — like sexting — can be very powerful.”
But even if a Snapchat image is set to vanish after a few seconds, there’s nothing to stop someone from taking a photograph of his smartphone screen with another camera.
Snapchat isn’t the first app to help people do things they probably shouldn’t on a smartphone. After Tiger Woods’s texting habits got him in trouble, a company called Tigertext offered an app that would delete text messages after they had been read.
People often believe that texts they share with friends and lovers will be kept safe. But on Twitter, some people are posting their Snapchat usernames so anyone can send them photos. Many of them appear to be quite young.
When asked about sexting among teenagers, Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist with the Pew Research Center, said: “What motivates teens is what motivates anyone who does this: You want to be in a relationship, you want to be desired, you want to be cool, or wild.” She added: “Solving the problem is always a bit of an arms race; we have technology that allows us to do something, then we have to create the technology to help protect us.”