I permanently lag behind in technology in all respects much to the exasperation of my tech-savvy family. However, one app that has recently made both my children’s iPhones and news headlines as potentially disrupting social media has caught my eye: SnapChat. As far as I understand it, SnapChat’s unique selling point is that it allows free sharing of photos via smartphones that then spontaneously self-destruct within a maximum of 10 seconds. Short lifespans raise interesting ethics questions. My own ethics work focuses on forward-looking decision-making, indeed the opposite of short-term (or micro-term) analysis. The ethical implications of SnapChat might question: What are the immediate ethics challenges for users and others potentially affected? What might be unexpected longer-term ethics consequences of a short-term app?
On the positive side, at first glance this app seems to offer an alternative to the exceptionally complex ethics quagmire of more permanent social media: Facebook photos stored that may find their way via diverse motivations of diverse senders to inappropriate, privacy-violating, career- or relationship-damaging, or emotionally distraught recipients. Worse, social media photos seem to be permanent or at least beyond the control of the subject or recipients to delete. In contrast, SnapChat prohibits storing. However, the self-destruct mechanism is easily overridden. The recipient of the snap photo can apparently copy it through the iPhone, which automatically notifies the sender of the original snap photo. This notification may or may not inhibit photographing the snap photo. Either way, this copy feature eliminates any claim of safety through brevity because it allows the recording of a storable, shareable snap photo therefore effectively transforming SnapChat into social media. Moreover, the snap photo can be sent to one or several recipients simultaneously, and apparently the recipients don’t know if they are receiving a snap alone or as part of an undefined recipient group. Thus SnapChat appears essentially bilateral but may not always be. Finally, in some ways, SnapChat seems like a compromise between texting and Skyping where the correspondent can send immediate background or other “exhibits” to the conversation.
The key ethics message is that short-term and frequently bilateral do not necessarily mean harmless and ethical. One challenge is the erroneous sense (partly from the self-destruction mechanism) that users engage no or diminished long-term responsibility for photos sent. The other challenge again is the option of photographing the snap photo so that the short-term and frequently bilateral characteristics of the app disappear – not the snap photo.
First, the lifespan of the photo does not necessarily equate with harm done. For example, violations of privacy don’t necessarily take time on SnapChat any more than they did with a two-sentence phone call, text, or e-mail (e.g. a photo of someone’s spouse in a compromising position, an athlete with performance enhancing drugs in hand, or a colleague violating a company rule). Indeed, a CNN.com article focuses heavily on the “sexting of naughty images to other users.” The photo vanishes, but the harm to the recipient does not necessarily disappear and, worse, in some cases triggers subsequent actions that hurt further (e.g. a divorce, various reactions stemming from emotional distress, intentional harm to others, or dismissal). Most importantly, the short lifespan does not improve the judgment of the sender.
Second, the self-destructive mechanism has no bearing on the ethical evaluation of the photo shared or subsequent harm done. Bullying on Facebook exemplifies an immensely important societal tragedy that has led to horrifying stories internationally of teen suicide. SnapChat bully seconds are every bit as unethical (in addition to cruel and dangerous) as social media or playground bullying, with or without iPhone copying. Bullying is unethical irrespective of the method. The bullying photos may disappear within seconds, but they are still shareable with large numbers of recipients and repeatable. Even if not shared, SnapChat may be worse given the likelihood that there will be no record for subsequent analysis or official remedy. Bullying in short, untraceable, repetitive spurts? Physical scars fade or with luck disappear, but does the ethical impact of emotional distress via SnapChat (of the subject of the photo, others directly or indirectly affected, or even the perpetrator) disappear as well any more than with any other form of social media?
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