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Can I use Snapchat in a Responsible Way?

Today’s Tech Tuesday question comes from Amber:

I have read a few of your posts about Snapchat. Snapchat can be used badly, as you have said in your articles. Also your pictures can be (most likely are) stored on Snapchat servers for them to use. For me I use Snapchat with my friends, and have never received or used it in a harmful way. I guess I am just wondering what you think about using Snapchat (in a non-harmful way)?

Amber, the quick answer is– Yes, of course you can. I’d just ask you to consider a longer answer with some things to think about, as well.

Is Snapchat, Inc. trustworthy?

First off let’s all recognize a fact. Some of the things I wrote about Snapchat in August 2013 have changed. Snapchat, as a platform and company, have matured as a more responsible ecosystem for it’s users. [And for the sake of its investors who, no doubt, would like to see a return on their $1.8 billion in investment to date.]

For instance, they now have a mechanism for law enforcement to contact them if a crime has [allegedly] occurred using their app, handing over data 375 times in the first 6 months to help in investigations. They’ve clarified their data storage practices, what types of data they are storing long-term and what types of data they intend to keep short-term. (Likewise, they finally admitted that the images weren’t being deleted as they’d claimed.) And they’ve been much more aggressive in educating underage users that the app isn’t good for sexting. Similarly, I’ve also noted that they are more aggressive in shutting down abusive accounts.

These are all good things. Very, very good things which I applaud them for. These changes show that Snapchat is trying to make their app more safe to use like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and less prone to abuse like say… Tinder or Kik.

But let’s also recognize that none of these changes came from within. Evan and his team didn’t implement any of this for altruistic reasons to protect their users… the type of self-regulation that’s very common at companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Instead, all of these changes were forced on them as the result of an unprecedented settlement between Snapchat and the Federal Trade Commission. (FTC) The scope of the agreement is 20 years of active monitoring at Snapchat’s expense. Meaning, they have government regulators constantly monitoring what they are doing and they have to report back to the FTC every quarter on what they are doing to remain compliant with applicable privacy and security laws.

I’d encourage you to take 30 minutes and read through the charges and the settlement yourself.

I’m not aware of a similar standing agreement among any other social media platform and I’ve been at this a long time. (Cough, since AOL 1.0 days)

So, I am less concerned about Snapchat today than I was 2 years ago. But I’m not giving them a lot of credit for a change of heart.

Many times you’ll hear people complain that the laws move slower than technology, this is how companies are able to get away with so much invasion of privacy– they exploit technology within legal loopholes. This simply wasn’t the case with Snapchat as they admitted in the settlement that they broke century old laws in making false claims to consumers.

What I see is a company that has often struggled to fully own their faults. When their app was hacked, they place the blame everywhere but their leadership, when it is… in fact… the sole responsibility of the company leadership to protect user data. When the app was being used by pedophiles to groom teenagers, they hid and made it nearly impossible to get usable data… that’s monstrous and nearly unforgivable. But perhaps this too is changing? I can’t really say because I only know the team externally. (Though I’d love to meet them in real life.) Evan, their frontman, CEO, and co-founder, seems to be doing a better job at owning mistakes and apologizing when necessary in this interview. In regards to the emails posted on my post, he half-owns it and apologizes… he says that it was inapppropriate and he’s sorry but he couches it by saying they were sent while he was in a fraternity— that’s not entirely true, those emails were sent when he was launching Snapchat, so while he might have still been in a fraternity, he was also creating a sexting app called Picaboo that since morphed and was rebranded to become Snapchat. So, that old habit is still there but I’m hopeful for his sake that he continues to mature as Snapchat’s frontman. Certainly, he’ll need to if he truly wants to see his company have an IPO before those investors force him to sell.

So, long story short? I think the jury is still out on whether Snapchat, Inc. is a trustworthy company.

Can I Use Snapchat Responsibly?

I really suppose that has to do with your definition of “responsibly.”

If you are using it for fun in a benign way, is that responsible? Probably for you individually. But again, I’d like to offer you a couple things to consider as you decide that for yourself.

  1. The app’s design does a good convincing users that you’re sending something private and temporary, that you can control privacy, etc. And just like that benefits you and makes the app more fun, it can also be a weakness that another person can use against you when you are vulnerable. And I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of young women who have been solicited to do something with the app that they later regretted. The images may be ephemeral but the exploitation that can happen on the app lasts a lot longer. (And yes, for some reason, Snapchat is more commonly used for this than any other app I’m aware of.)
  2. Understand that others are targeted and groomed for exploitation using the app. I know that sounds yucky, because it is. But the simple fact is that the nature of the app has a tendency to bring out a dark side in people. As a leader, I’d be aware that my usage of the app makes it OK for people who look up to me. So your responsible usage may be giving permission to someone to use the app that could result in them being harmed. (To be clear, I don’t mean people use the app to rape people. But I do know that many young women have been coerced/manipulated to send things via the app they regret. They’ve been exploited pure and simple.)
  3. If I’m an adult using the app I would NEVER EVER send a snap to someone who is a minor that isn’t my child. Yes, Snapchat is the new cool way to market to teenagers. But that shouldn’t mean that teachers, coaches, youth workers, etc. should be sending magically disappearing images to minors. That’s a quick way to prison if you ask me.

So, to answer your question again: Yes, I think you can use Snapchat responsibly. While it was once an app I would deem as “Dangerous, to be avoided by teenagers” I’ve changed my recommendation to “Use with extra caution.” Personally, I still think Instagram or texting are better choices.

I hope this long, but hopefully informative answer, is helpful to you. I’d love to hear from readers about how they are using Snapchat responsibly or places in this post where they disagree with my thoughts. Leave me a comment or drop me a line.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

3 replies on “Can I use Snapchat in a Responsible Way?”

Thanks for posting this, Adam. I still won’t use it because I feel that it just isn’t worth it and with there being other ways to share pics with friends why bother with Snapchat when it does leave so many questions.

I very, very, very relunctantly downloaded Snapchat because my 22yo sister begged me to. She uses it with her friends I think as a way to send pictures without overwhelming a person’s instagram page, for example. (So she sends me super silly things that she wouldn’t post on instagram.) Now, I don’t know why she wants that over just texting me, but I made the choice that to stay in better touch with her, I would go ahead and download it. I rarely send her anything, and I don’t even like the interface. (Maybe I’m finally “old?”) But this makes me feel a *tad* less dirty even having it on my phone.

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