Ephemerality in Messaging

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.

The State of Instagram

(Rise Up! by Christopher Parsons)

I owe a lot to Instagram. Starting in January 1, 2017 until October 2017 I began a project of uploading a photo a day (or thereabouts) and, in the process, I learned an awful lot about how to use my cameras, shots that I tend to prefer taking, and the cool stuff you could do by looking at other photographers’ shots.

It was pretty great.

But for reasons I’ve previously written about I’ve drifted away from regular postings to Instagram or even taking photographs with the regularity of the last year. Specifically, I wrote:

… something is changing in how I approach photography itself, at least right now: I don’t want as many amber memories, and instead want to enjoy the development and unfolding of certain memories, and feel more comfortable in the knowledge that the ‘final’ memories I’ll have will be even more subjective than those associated with photographs. Some will even vanish in their entirety.

In fact, from November 2017 – April 2018 I didn’t post a single photo to Instagram and only logged in once or twice.1 But my not uploading photos has been nagging me because I know that part of why I was taking shots — and getting good ones! — was because I had been actively trying to upload stuff on a regular basis. Instagram was a method for pushing me to practice my own skills and, occasionally, receiving feedback on the shots I was getting.

So I dipped my toe back in, with a fresh upload, and then started to browse my feed. As usual, there were great photographs from the photographers that I follow.2 But there were also a lot of ads. I mean, every 5-7 images was another ad. That really, really, really sucked because it made the platform a lot less enjoyable to browse and look at; it was less a network of people, and more an ad network that was interspersed with real people’s photographs.

So what I’m going to do is upload a photo a week, or so, to Instagram because I’d like to keep my profile alive. But I’m not going to invest the time in the platform that I did in the past. And, instead, I’m going to reflect on where I want to put my content, why I want it there, and with what regularity I want to upload photos to the public Internet. That’s part of an activity I’ve been undertaking over the past year but I’d honestly thought that Instagram might remain a fun place to interact with people. Sadly, it looks like that might not be the case after all.

  1. I was, however, taking photos during that period though not with daily-regularity.
  2. I don’t tend to follow people, including friends and family, unless they take shots I find aesthetically pleasing. So there aren’t a lot of family photos, breakfast shots, or other site such material that make their way onto my feed very often.

The Roundup for March 31-April 6, 2018 Edition

Crossed by Christopher Parsons

Photographing something that captures the situation you’re in emotionally and in life, while reflecting something about wherever you are in space, can be a deeply revelatory experience. When I try to take such shots I’m often alone with just some music or podcast and a camera, and exploring areas that are sometimes brand new and other times are well tread shooting grounds. Sometimes I want to get a particular ‘feeling’ — one that, only afterwards, I tend to realize reflects where I was emotionally at the time — and other times I want to deliberately try to shoot for a certain kind of colour, shadow, or pattern. Quite often, it’s only after looking at photos taken during the session that I realize that a certain kind of emotion was really behind my shooting choices.

If I’m being honest, the experiential nature of photography really only hits me as I look through my photos, after taking them, after processing them, and after I set them to display through my TV (my ‘best of’ photos are my Apple TV’s screensaver). I need to see them, repeatedly, in order to appreciate what is in them. Sometimes it’s months before I really realize what was really going on in a given photo. Sometimes, even years later, I may know that particular shots are important to how I was at the time but still can’t quite describe why I know this to be the case. I can (at least somewhat) deconstruct the technical elements of the photos but can’t necessarily also identify the meaning of the photo I took.

At the same time, there are times when society asserts that I “should” want to hunt for photos, but I’m disinterested in doing so because I don’t want to try and capture the emotional or physical space I’m in, in the amber that is a photograph. Sometimes I want to ride out experiences; rather than hold onto them in perfect perpetuity, I want to leave them in the malleable space of human memory with the knowledge that how I remember the past will inevitably change over time as the temporal distance between my current existence and that memory grows and extends. Sometimes I want to experience to grow and contract, through and with me, instead of act as a defined anchor to a given time or place.

It’s that difference — between choosing to hold times in the amber of a photo versus storing it purely in the mind — that I’ve been mulling in my mind for the past little while. Some of the photos I have manage to capture times that are joyous, others melancholy, others full of light and joy, and yet others alienation and loneliness. And I tend to tightly hold onto the meaning of the photographs I’ve taken: I don’t go out of my way to explain my photography to anyone else, nor do I think it’s something that I need to do. Shutter therapy is just that: a kind of physical and intellectual therapy. But there are specific moments that I deliberately keep separate from my camera, and they’re often times wherein people are most likely to entrap time in amber, such as vacation or celebration. But I’ve found myself less and less excited to engage in such photography over the past several months.

I’m not entirely certain why: perhaps the weather has just been so miserable that it’s had an impact on my motivations to shoot. But equally possible it’s because something is changing in how I approach photography itself, at least right now: I don’t want as many amber memories, and instead want to enjoy the development and unfolding of certain memories, and feel more comfortable in the knowledge that the ‘final’ memories I’ll have will be even more subjective than those associated with photographs. Some will even vanish in their entirety. I don’t know why this is my current state of mind but, regardless, it’s an interesting intellectual moment that is prompting reflection on my photography, what drives it, and the relationship between amber memory and living memory.

Notable Quotation

“If you can change one thing about yourself then please be kinder and change how you end things because it matters way more than how you begin them.”

– Sartaj Anand

New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week

  • iOS 11.3 dropped last week and for the entire time I’ve been testing the Notes application pretty regularly to see if it’s stopped freezing, crashing, and otherwise not working properly. It seems to be working once more, which is a huge relief as huge portions of my life are locked up in the application. Not sure what was broken, or how it got fixed, but I’m pretty happy to discover that things are working once more!

Great Photography Shots

Many of the winning shots for the Smithsonian’s 15th Annual photo contest are just spectacular.

Making Incense
© Tran Tuan Viet. All rights reserved
© Adam Żądło. All rights reserved.
Pinnacle of Existence
© Oreon Strusinski. All rights reserved.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

The Roundup for February 3-9, 2018 Edition

Layers, 2018, Toronto by Christopher Parsons

We generate a vast amount of digital exhaust which imperceptibly lingers around us. The metadata and content that’s left behind us is typically regarded as harmless until it’s used or abused, or until it’s misappropriated by someone.

Part of this exhaust follows from our regular shifting between services as our tastes, interests, attitudes, ambitions, and desires change. Social media platforms are adopted and abandoned. Fitness tracking systems that were exciting one year are dull the next and then forgotten, with the tracker consigned to a trash bin or electronics drawer and data residing in perpetuity with whatever service was collecting it. The data we’ve contributed to all those services lingers: it can come back to haunt us in ways we don’t understand or appreciate when signing up for the service, and it can be challenging to undo the associated harms when they befall us.

As part of my ongoing effort to clean up some of the exhaust I’ve left behind, I deleted an old Fitbit account a few weeks ago. It was a bit annoying — you need to contact support, click yes to some emails, and then support will delete the information — but after ten minutes or so the account and its data was consigned to the dustbin of the Internet. Similarly, I blew away over 32,000 tweets this week. I left the last six months data behind or so, but it means that there’s a long trace of exhaust that’s gone.1 And I’ll be undertaking similar operations for the rest of the year, or at least so I’ve planned.

In the case of the Fitbit data, it now rests securely in Apple Health, giving me a broader understanding of changes to my fitness activities than I previously enjoyed. I downloaded a copy of my tweets before wiping them away. And for personal blogs, I’m either consolidating them here or into a semi-local digital journal so I don’t lose what I’ve previously written. But if I’m serious it’s unlikely that I’m going to re-read (that many) of my old blogs. And I’m not looking at daily variations between today’s fitness regime and that of 2008. The data could do a lot more in other persons’ hands to harm me than in my own hands to benefit me, especially as I’ve moved away from where those blogs were active and the fitness communities where members engaged with one another.

The only thing that bothers me is that, in removing things from the Internet, I’m breaking the links that were inbound to those respective pieces of content. But…did anyone really link back to old tweets and, if they did, do I have a responsibility for their linking to what I tend to perceive as off-hand comments? Do I have to maintain and support now long-abandoned accounts on the presumption that someone might someday want to follow a link?

For a long time I would have said ‘yes’ to either of those statements. But I just don’t think that that’s a healthy attitude: humanity forgets. And then we rebuild the old it is in slightly different formats and in the (perceived) image of the past. I can’t imagine those old tweets, blogs, or fitness tracking data being so important that anyone will want to rebuild or remake what they once were and, if that is the case, then they’re welcome to follow in humanity’s ancient footsteps of imaging the past and superimposing their own aspirations, dreams, desires, and fears upon it.

Inspiring Quotations

Writing for friends and yourself can clear your thoughts, help you plan and invite the discovery of new ideas. Writing with the intention to put your thoughts out there leads to real writing. Writing gets real when it is read. Before that, it is a dream in letters. Writing to get read makes you careful, responsible, and considerate. It forces you to think as simply, clearly and understandably as possible. It forces you to think about how what you say may look and feel from the outside. Writing to be read may not be desirable for everybody. But if you feel that you have something to say, write to be read. Don’t search for something to write because you want to be famous or rich. If you want fame jump from a cliff into a butter bucket on YouTube. If you want to be rich, get into finance.

New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week

Great Photography Shots

I love these shots of Ice Caves in Iceland.

Photography by Matěj Kříž
Photography by Matěj Kříž
Photography by Matěj Kříž

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things


  1. Of course if a company or organization has previously scraped that data, which does happen, then those records will persist beyond my public deletion of the tweets.
  2. I’m really finding this great background music for just getting work done. Great moody music.

The Roundup for January 13-19, 2018 Edition

Boundaries by Christopher Parsons

I’ve been trying to clean up aspects of my digital past for the past six or eight months. To date, that’s mostly meant migrating content between a range of different platforms to consolidate it. The ultimate goal is to move all personal stuff to either a private journal or public blog (this one), all business and work-related stuff migrated to my professional website, permanently delete tens of thousands of old emails (and empty old email accounts),1 and re-evaluate the different social media accounts that I possess and close/delete at least some of them.

In the course of this digital cleanup I’ve stumbled across lots of old writings, communications, and thoughts. Most are pretty banal but others remind me of significant moments in my life. Small things, like the first time I signed a lease or received notice that I was accepted into graduate schools. Notifications of family health emergencies. And too many messages from friends to which I didn’t respond.

Why am I cleaning things up? In part, for privacy and security reasons. I’ve tried to keep a relatively ‘clean’ online profile but know that my more youthful self was less mindful of what was put online that I am today. There are regular stories about accounts being penetrated and documents either being directly leaked to the public or, worse, being selectively modified and then subsequently published. The best way of addressing such threats starts by getting rid of materials that might be used in such doxing operations and old accounts that might offer insight into my private life.

I think that the process of going through and deleting items, however, also stems from my distaste for how near-permanent retention affects human relationships. In his book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Victor Mayer Schonberger argues that humans have evolved to forget many of our interactions with one another in order to facilitate long-term relationships with one another. He impresses on the reader that it is important to add ‘forgetfulness’ to digital data collection processes and, as I wrote previously,

draws what are arguably correct theoretical conclusions (we need to get a lot better at deleting data to avoid significant normative, political, and social harms) while drawing absolutely devastatingly incorrect technological solutions (key: legislating ‘forgetting’ into all data formats and OSes).

We don’t remember all of the slights in a relationship, or all the harsh words spoken between one another, or even the abnormally positive comments or actions. As a result, we can have interactions with people who might have really upset us in the past because the reasons of that upset fade over time: we say that ‘time heals all wounds’ for a reason. It turns out that it’s because of human evolution!

So by retaining our memories permanently in a digital format there is the perpetual chance that we’re reminded of things that our minds have forgotten on our behalves. Perfect and permanent recollection isn’t the norm, and in our race to digitize and remember everything forever our technical aspirations are stepping beyond the nature of our bodies. Now we exceed our own bodily capabilities in lots of ways — humans are functionally cyborgs — but affecting our psychological interactions with one another strikes me, personally, as having potentially dangerous social implications. As a result, I tend to regard my current process of deleting parts of my past, forever, as a mental health practice as well as a practice linked to privacy or security.

The last few months of 2017 were hard for me. One of the ways that I know this is I took up hobbies that didn’t contribute to my development as a person and were, instead, simply pleasurable ways of wasting away time and trying to relax in the absence of doing anything of import. But it never really felt right: I had nothing to show at the end of the activities and typically wasn’t any happier with myself by the end of the recreation period.

Some of that is scar tissue from past relationships and past work-life imbalances.2 And some of it is linked to historical coping methods in periods of high stress. But this year I want to ensure that I find more productive outputs to relax so as to to find enjoyment in personal creation and to ensure that I can develop and grow as a person instead of just wasting away precious time. That doesn’t mean I’m never going to waste away time but, instead, that I want to be more deliberate and measured when I do decide to indulge in pointless recreation that doesn’t contribute to my personal enrichment.

Inspiring Quotation

“To make real change, you have to be well anchored – not only in the belief that it can be done, but also in some pretty real ways about who you are and what you can do.”

– Twyla Tharp

New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week

Great Photography Shots

Vincent Laforet strapped an iPhone 7 to the bottom of a Lear jet and then flew in a straight direction while activating the iPhone’s panorama mode. He’s sharing photos over at Instagram. They’re absolutely spectacular and show just what you can do with smartphone cameras.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things


  1. I don’t delete the actual email accounts because I’m mindful of a company re-using my old usernames and them potentially transforming into a vector for phishing. Yahoo! did this to their users.
  2. It’s really hard for me to just take time to myself when that time isn’t productive in some sense. I can identify the reasons why but knowledge on its own isn’t sufficient to overcome the feeling of being ‘bad’.

Plant Memories

Europeans citizens and their settlers have long treated the natural world as mere ‘stuff’ that can be manipulated to achieve our human-centric ends. It wasn’t that long ago that animals were regarded as dumb beasts without the ability to genuinely feel pain or have thoughts or memories. It turns out that our presumptions of plants are similarly undergoing radical reevaluations by some in the scientific community.

After training the plants, Gagliano withheld the light. When she next turned on the fans, she had switched them to the opposite branch of the Y shape. She wanted to see if the plants had learned to associate airflow with light, or its absence, strongly enough to react to the breeze, even if it was coming from a different direction, with no light as a signal. It worked. The plants that had been trained to associate the two stimuli grew toward the fan; the plants that had been taught to separate them grew away from the airflow.

“In that context, memory is actually not the interesting bit—of course you have memory, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do the trick,” she says. “Memory is part of the learning process. But—who is doing the learning? What is actually happening? Who is it that is actually making the association between fan and light?”

It’s telling that Gagliano uses the word “who,” which many people would be unlikely to apply to plants. Even though they’re alive, we tend to think of plants as objects rather than dynamic, breathing, growing beings. We see them as mechanistic things that react to simple stimuli. But to some extent, that’s true of every type of life on Earth. Everything that lives is a bundle of chemicals and electrical signals in dialogue with the environment in which it exists. A memory, such as of the heat of summer on last year’s beach vacation, is a biochemical marker registered from a set of external inputs. A plant’s epigenetic memory, of the cold of winter months, on a fundamental level, is not so different.

It’s absolutely amazing to learn how much we do not know, and similarly striking that so many people actively work to prevent scientists from learning more about the natural world.