May 13, 2021

WhatsApp (Finally) Launches Its “Disappearing Messages” Feature

In November 2020, WhatsApp officially launched its long-rumoured “disappearing messages” feature which, when switched on, will wipe off all messages seven days after they are sent regardless of whether they were read by the receiver or not. The feature had been reportedly in the works since October 2019 and is now available on group as well as individual chats. 

According to an official statement released by WhatsApp, the feature is being offered, “because we think it offers peace of mind that conversations aren’t permanent while remaining practical so you don’t forget what you were chatting about.” The goal, according to the company is, “to make conversations on WhatsApp feel as close to in-person as possible, which means they shouldn’t have to stick around forever”.

“That’s why we’re excited to introduce the option to use disappearing messages on WhatsApp. When the ‘disappearing messages’ feature is turned on, new messages sent to a chat will disappear after 7 days, helping the conversation feel lighter and more private,” it went on to say.

How Does It Work?

The feature is off by default and has to be manually turned on. It is also contact (or chat) specific, which means that messages will only disappear after seven days in the chat where that feature was switched on. In every other chat, your messages will remain visible.

To turn on the feature, simply tap on the name of the contact (or group), which should take you to a settings window for the chat. There, tap on “disappearing messages” and click “on” when prompted by the app. A clock symbol will become visible next to the display picture of the chat, indicating to all participants that the feature has been enabled. In a one-on-one chat, both participants can control the feature, however, only group admins will have control in group chats.

So, what does it mean?

WhatsApp, of course is not the first mobile app to have introduced this feature. In fact, it is not even the first Facebook-owned application to do so. The feature model was initially introduced by Snapchat, which went on to revolutionise social media interactions through what is now popularly imagined as “stories”, a form of time-specific disappearing content. Facebook, Instagram, Signal, and now Twitter all offer some variant of this feature. In fact, WhatsApp itself rolled out its “status” feature inspired by the model before introducing disappearing messages, so how is this any different?

Tech experts are noticing the several feature updates that WhatsApp has rolled out within the last year and a half, specially because its parent company, Facebook spent years without introducing features to amp up data security or curb fake news even as the political climate around it changed. 

Other than the new disappearing messages feature, WhatsApp is also dabbling with additional charged services to business accounts in an effort to remain ad-free, and a new storage feature that makes it easier to control the location of incoming photos and other media that otherwise take up space in the phone memory. The disappearing feature, too, WhatsApp claims is an effort to provide a more secure communication environment. In fact, the reason the feature got so delayed is because of the encrypted nature of the app itself. 

“[End-to-end encryption] was partly why it took us so long to implement this feature, because we wanted to retain the e2e capabilities that WhatsApp users expect and love,” a company spokesperson told TechCrunch. And it does appear that privacy was high on the priority list in the development of the feature. For example, even though disappearing messages become part of the WhatsApp backup when sent, upon data restoration, they will get cleared from WhatsApp records. 

However, there are loopholes.

Unlike Snapchat and Instagram that send a notification to the sender when an ephemeral message is screenshotted, WhatsApp does not provide that information. Thus, the sender might remain unaware if a pictorial proof of a message exists long after it was meant to “disappear”. Similarly, any media sent through disappearing messages, once downloaded in the phone will remain in phone memory, even after the message itself “disappears” from WhatsApp. Messages that have been forwarded or quoted will also remain visible even after the original message is cleared from the chat.

The utility, as well as implications, of the new feature remain unclear, especially since unlike Instagram or Snapchat, WhatsApp is not meant for public content creation. The app is used as a channel of communication at several official and unofficial workplaces, while also catering to personal communication. What, then, is the result of giving people the option to have proof of their conversation removed – or not if they do not consider the loopholes present in the feature – only time will tell.

Written by

Aimun Faisal works as a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy. She is a journalist and an educator, who cares far too much about feminism, global political trends, and Pakistan cricket, and thus very little about her mental health.

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