Last May, startup founder Steve Chung got 200 MBA students at Stanford University to try a new mobile messaging app he was working on. It was a social platform that let them send photos, videos, and texts to one another, along with an odd side feature: messages that self-destructed after a few seconds, a la Snapchat. To Chung’s surprise, the clever Stanford students found his app complicated and off-putting. The one thing they did like was the self-destructing, ephemeral texts. Chung took heed, carving off everything else and making his app, Frankly, all about sending texts that expired whenever you wanted them too. On Sept. 24, he launched Frankly on iOS. Since then, he’s raised $6 million in funding from South Korean mobile giant SK Planet, hired a staff of 20 and booked a decent 350,000 downloads. Out of a handful of similar texting services, Frankly has raised the most financing, and some say it marks a future trend.
The app works like this: send a message, and your recipient will initially see a box of blurred text. Once they tap it, a set timer counts down the seconds till the message has been deleted; sent to the digital afterlife. Chat windows, for the most part, thus stand empty at all times. Each time someone sends a text, they can also tap a black “x” afterward to take it back, in case they change their mind. The idea is that the sender is always in control.
Self-destructing texts sounds about as odd as Snapchat did last year, and even last May when Chung was testing his app at Stanford. Now we know that sending goofy, or even incriminating selfies has a certain appeal. But texts? Why send messages to people, only for them to be deleted?
Chung and a handful of startup founders and investors in Silicon Valley say there are plenty of good reasons. Their new buzz word is “ephemeral.” It’s not about a quirky mobile fad for sexting teens, but potentially the future of mobile messaging itself. Snapchat’s reported snub of $3 billion from Facebook is just part of the evidence.
More comes from how Chung’s test group reacted to his app. They weren’t necessarily eager to send shady or illicit texts to one another, a motive often associated with Snapchat. “They felt free and light in conversation,” said Chung. “Liberated.” They also used Frankly a lot. Its users currently send an average of 30 messages daily.
More teens and young adults have already been gravitating towards mobile messaging apps like WeChat, WhatsApp, and Snapchat, partly because they’re tired of leaving a digital trail on social media sites that other people can judge them by. Everyone from parents to college administrators is on Facebook and Twitter now.
Ephemeral messaging takes this craving for privacy a step further, Chung says, lifting the burden of permanence and making every conversation fresh and dynamic.
“Our definition is that delete is the default,” he says. Some users may choose to keep certain messages on Frankly permanent, but for the most part, they won’t need to. Eighty percent of anything that happens on SMS doesn’t need to be recorded, Chung says.
Viktor Mayer Schonberger has a similar take in his book Delete, stating that for the first time in human history it’s easier to record something than to delete it. Selectively saving takes computational time and effort, and so today, everything from text to email to photos are recorded in the cloud, quite a lot considering 90% of the world’s data has been generated in just the last two years, according to an estimate by IBM.
“Maybe, just as the rise of big data and government surveillance and privacy concerns and the over-curated self-images on Facebook, people are saying, ‘I miss the days when I could have a private conversation,’” says Chung. “‘Maybe I’m not saying anything bad, but you and I sit down in a coffee shop and we remember what we remember. When we leave, we don’t have reams of paper that recorded it all.’”
The question then isn’t if people want their messages deleted — plenty seem perfectly happy to keep reams of recorded texts — but whether they want more control over what is recorded.
Kevin Stephens, the CEO of ephemeral message service Blink, says many of his users go back and forth between setting a timer on their texts and keeping them permanent. “For some reason, they’ll set their timer to ‘never expire,’ then switch back to five seconds,” Stephens says. “We see people switching back and forth quite a bit.”
Nico Sell, founder, and CEO of private messaging app Wickr lets her users, which number in the single-digit millions, decide whether messages should last from one second to five days, or remain permanent. “We put the power in the hands of the people,” she says. “All we’re doing is flipping the default on its head. With Apple iMessage and Facebook Messenger, your data lives forever and you share with strangers.” Like Frankly, engagement is high: Wickr users touch the app an average 26 times, says Sell.
With her cybersecurity and cryptography background, Sell started Wickr at around the same time as Snapchat was founded but infused it with heavy, end-to-end encryption. The impetus was her kids, she says, and protecting them from “the permanence of the Internet.” Currently, Wickr’s power users are celebrities, journalists and professionals in finance and law, but Sell is planning to expand beyond the security conscious to more mainstream users, by launching a revamped interface next week.
On the whole and despite the strong views of founders, ephemeral messaging is very much in its infancy. The largest players to date are the still-barely-known Frankly, along with Wickr and Blink (which raised $1 million in seed funding and won’t reveal active user numbers). There are other names like Gryphn, Ansa, SecretInk, and TigerText.
They face big risks: not only being ignored by mobile users, but aped by established messaging giants like Apple’s iMessage, WeChat or Facebook Messenger. Facebook’s knockoff of Snapchat, Poke, may have gained little traction with people, but one industry source says Facebook is already working on a self-destructing messaging service too.
Roger Lee, a partner at Palo Alto-based Battery Ventures who has been scouting the mobile messaging space, sees potential for ephemeral messaging to gain mass appeal, but it’s still unclear if any of these apps are a good investment. “The bigger question in my mind is what we can learn from [Snapchat] about behaviors and other use cases,” he says. He points to the enterprise market and companies who might like to be able to delete files after sending them via mobile devices. Texts, he adds, also don’t have the embarrassment-potential of photos, so it’s hard to justify a need for self-destruction.
Even Snapchat, it should be noted, hasn’t released the all-important number for its monthly active users, meaning we still don’t know how popular it is. Its users receive 400 million photos a day, but given that teens (aged 12-17) send an average of 60 texts per day according to Pew, that could mean the active user number is less than 20 million, perhaps even less than 10 million as recent math by Buzzfeed suggests. Like Blink and Wickr, user engagement is high, but that doesn’t make it poised for mass adoption.
Still, Blink’s Stephens says downloads for his app are growing 50% month-over-month, with teens and college students the biggest users. Most are in the U.S., but privacy-conscious Holland and Germany, along with Saudi Arabia, are close behind.
On both Frankly and Blink, users have the added, intriguing option of becoming anonymous in group conversations. “What we’re trying to enable are spontaneity and honesty,” Stephens says. “Why should it be permanent?” He predicts that in five years or less, “everybody will be communicating using ephemeral messages in some way. People will not rely on SMS unless it has an ephemeral, self-destructing component.”
“We need to add expiration dates to all information on the Internet,” Wickr’s founder contends. “I draw the analogy to milk. Kids used to get sick because they drank old milk, and it had an expiration date on it. That’s the kind of thing you need on messages.”
Wickr, like Frankly and Blink, has yet to book any revenue, but Sell plans to offer premium services like conference calling, and stay firmly away from advertising. Snapchat, by contrast, has reportedly hired salespeople to launch an ad-based business model. The future money-making potential for all of these services is very unclear, but it will ultimately determine their staying power.
It’s impossible to predict at this point if ephemeral messaging is a fad or a fundamental trend, says Rajeev Chand, research director at mobile-focused investment boutique Rutberg Investments. What we do know is Facebook won’t ultimately rule mobile and social, he says. “Instagram, which Facebook had to acquire, and WhatsApp were two shining examples thus far, and now Snapchat is a third.”
The mobile giants of the future will sprout up rapidly starting with the simplest ideas, he adds. Like self-destructing messages.