social media Tech Tuesday

Why Ephemeral Matters

Ephemeral – lasting for a very short time. “fashions are ephemeral” synonyms: transitory, transient, fleeting, passing, short-lived, momentary, brief, short

In the social media world, most of what took off and gained traction among teenagers and young adults in 2014 fall into the category of Ephemeral Apps. Things like Snapchat, Tinder, Yik Yak, and others are built on the temporal nature of the messages.
  • A Snap lasts for just a few seconds. (Though Stories last a little longer, they also aren’t as popular as sending a Snap.)
  • On Tinder, you swipe to the right if you want to know more about a person, swipe to the left and they are gone.
  • Yik Yak is all about capturing the unfiltered thoughts of the moment. (I consider it to be the bathroom wall of the internet.) If you live somewhere where the app is active, your Yaks might only be on the site an hour before they go away.

For most adults, you roll your eyes at things like Yik Yak, Tinder, and Snapchat.

Understand this– That’s entirely the point!

RULE #1 – Teenagers and college students want to hang out where adults don’t. The less popular something is for adults, the better.

RULE #2 – Perceived anonymity and privacy is enough for what they want to do. We’re talking about a generation of app users who have grown up with their lives documented on mommy blogs, Facebook, and Instagram. They ultimately know that there is no such thing as privacy or anonymity online… that things get tracked back to them… but that’s not the point. The point is creating private space from the prying eyes of adults and/or people they don’t want to connect with. The perception of anonymity or privacy is just fine with them.

Why Ephemeral Matters

When I’m talking to parents or youth workers or school administrators they are dealing with very practical problems.

But I don’t think you can problem solve ephemeral apps without first taking the time to understand why it’s important for teenagers and what it’s in response to within our society.

  1. Ephemeral matters because it’s seems safer than other options. “Safer” can mean a lot of things. Safer from mom and dad, safer from creepers, safer from getting tracked back to you, on and on. Posting on Twitter or Facebook, where adults persist, is dangerous. Posting on Snapchat? Totally safer.
  2. Ephemeral matters because it’s just chatting. As Danah Boyd so aptly drove home in her book, It’s Complicated, American society has systematically eliminated the places teenagers used to hang out free from the prying eyes and ears of adults. (Malls, streets, casual sports, etc.) These apps matter because these become the places where they can hang out. They may have very little “free time” that you or I grew up with, these apps provide the space to just chat. (This is why taking them away is so traumatic.)
  3. Ephemeral matters because it’s outside of adult control. Beyond the prying eyes, beyond the deep signs, beyond the misunderstanding, beyond the control-freak-parenting-methodology… ephemeral apps are a response to all of this. It doesn’t matter because of them, it matters because of  us. 
  4. Ephemeral exists because of general isolation everyone is experiencing. Here’s a challenge. Go sit at Starbucks with a pad of paper. Sit in a corner by yourself so you can see the whole store. In a 15 minute period, make a tick for every person who is in the store, comes or goes. Next, make a tick for every time someone looks at a screen. (Phone, computer, tablet.) What you’ll likely observe is that people are generally isolated from the life in front of them because they are absorbed by the life on the small screen in their pocket. This isolation creates the need for places you can speak flippantly, without worry that what you say is going to get back to your parents or boss or whomever. We all need places where we aren’t making “official statements” or having an “official position” but just have a place to say whatever comes to mind or feels good in the moment.
  5. Ephemeral persists because of the neurological high. Lastly, and perhaps an area where the least is known, is this idea that apps trigger your brain to check notifications, likes, and send responses at the neurological level which can mean that you don’t know why you’re checking it or using it so much… you just are. (More on that here)

My advice? As an adult, it’s easy to just deal with the frustrations caused by things you haven’t taken the time to understand. Don’t waste your time trying to talk people out of using apps. (You’re actually increasing their desire to use them!)

Instead, take the time to understand why these apps matter to the young adults in your life. Just because you don’t get it doesn’t mean something is bad. It might mean that you need to be the learner and not the teacher. 

social media

Yik Yak Threats Are a Bad Idea

CBS News 8 – San Diego, CA News Station – KFMB Channel 8

[Link to the above video – I appear in a phone interview talking about the situation at Torrey Pines High School and Yik Yak, in general.]

Yik Yak has a problem.

The harder they try to market themselves as an app for college students the more high schoolers they attract.

In fairness, they really have been a good digital citizen. 

They make it easy for law enforcement to contact them, they provide information to aid investigations when they receive a court order, and they went to great expense and effort to geofence off every middle and high school over the summer. They’ve even made it possible for school administrators to request geofencing or correct it.

And yet problems persist. The perception of anonymity gives some teenagers license to wreak havoc. Just like there were idiots who pulled the fire alarm every day at Hanau American High School when I was a junior in high school, the (child of) that same idiot will make threats on Yik Yak.

“You Are So Dumb”

You-are-dumb-you-are-really-dumb-fo-realIn the words of a great American, Antoine Dodson, I say this: If you think you can post an anonymous threat on Yik Yak and get away with it… You are so dumb.

Here’s What You Need to Know

All of the so-called anonymous and ephemeral apps point directly back to you. (Yik Yak, Snapchat, Whisper, Secret, etc) The only people that thinks things disappear or are anonymous are the users.

So if you are using these apps and thinking it’s all private or secure or anonymous, recognize that this is merely a perception.

There is no such thing as privacy or anonymity online, only the perception of privacy or anonymity. 

Here’s Some Reasons Yik Yak Threats Are a Bad Idea

  • To create an account you need a valid email address. Oops. 
  • Even if you use a fake or “anonymous” email address to create an account, the IP address associated with your account points back to you. (Learn about IPv6 — “Every device on the Internet is assigned an IP address for identification and location definition.”) Oops. 
  • Most people are too lazy for that so they login with their Facebook account. Oops. 
  • With Yik Yak specifically, the app simply won’t work if you don’t have the GPS on your phone activated for the app. (Location Services for Apple Users) So while a Yak posted my only show you a general area it’s posted from, the app recorded your exact location when you posted. Oops. 
  • When you post an image to something like Whisper or Snapchat… the image itself has TONS of metadata that points directly to your device and location. Oops. 
  • The data network on your phone is constantly pinging your location back to your service provider. Actually, the GPS on most phones actually works even if you have data turned off. In other words, if that phone is on, it’s logging your location within about 10 feet. Oops.
  • The cellular network on your phone connects to nearby towers each time you make or receive a call or send a text. While not as accurate as the GPS, it establishes that you are within a general area. Oops. 
  • Let’s say you think you are slick and use a VPN. Wanna know what? Your phone logs that you used that VPN. So if a threat came through a VPN and your phone used the same VPN? Oops. 

And do you know how hard it is to get all of that information? Not that hard if you are law enforcement. A court order, subpoena, or search warrant is all that’s needed. A little paperwork and the signature of a judge.

So, let’s say you make a threat about a school on an “anonymous” app. Within about two weeks you’ll discover that what you thought was anonymous was anything but that.

Far from putting on winter gloves and pulling the fire alarm in 1993, an online threat posted to Yik Yak or another so-called anonymous app leaves a digital footprint that easily establishes your guilt. All of this data is admissible in court. And all of this data will prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you did it.


Yes! I agree that it’s weird that I have to write this. It feels kind of obvious. But then again… every day a new story emerges of someone doing it. So, I guess this post really is needed.