Signal announced last week that their users could set a default that messages would auto-delete themselves after a period of time from 30 second to four weeks. The default would apply to all conversations, though could be modified on a per-conversation basis. The company wrote,
As the norms for how people connect have changed, much of the communication that once took place through the medium of coffee shops, bars, and parks now takes place through the medium of digital devices. One side effect of this shift from analog to digital is the conjoined shift from the ephemeral to the eternal: words once transiently spoken are now – more often than not – data stored forever.
I tend to think that the retain-forever approach that digital technologies have imposed on contemporary life is deeply unhealthy, and think pretty highly of the early work done by people like Mayer-Schonberger despite some of my critiques. As I noted when I reviewed his book,
… comprehensive digital remembering collapses history and thus impairs our judgement to act in time, while denying humans the chance to evolve, develop, and learn. This leaves us to helplessly oscillate between two equally troubling options: a permanent past and an ignorant present.
Signal’s approach, while appreciated, is also only a first step as they don’t provide an easy way to also extract and permanently retain some communications outside of their environment. Why does this matter? Because there are, in fact, some conversations that need to be retained for some time, be they personal (e.g., last communications with a loved on) or professional (e.g., government employees required to retain substantive decisions and conversations in archives). The company might introduce a flag where–with the consent of both parties–specific parts of conversations could be retained indefinitely outside of the default deletion times. Adding in the friction of retention would serve to replicate how ‘remembering’ often works in non-digital contexts: it takes extra effort to create facsimiles. We should strive to replicate that into more of our digital environments.
Still, Signal’s approach–enabling deletion by default–is arguably an effort to bend communications closer to their historical norms and, as such, likely for the better. They’re obviously not the first company to think this way–Snapchat famously led the way, and numerous social companies’ ‘stories’ posts are designed delete after 24 hours for ‘privacy’ and also (really) engagement reasons–but I think that it’s meaningful that a text-messaging company is introducing this as a way of easily setting defaults for forgetting.