WhatsApp's newest setting, that's making your messages disppear

First published on The Wall Street Journal 

Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp has introduced a setting that automatically deletes messages after seven days, a move aimed at encouraging users to feel comfortable chatting in confidence.

The feature, which as of this month can be applied to both one-to-one and group chats, is meant to make chats feel more like face-to-face conversations than imperishable email threads or text messages do, said Zafir Khan, product manager at WhatsApp.

Records of most in-person conversations don’t exist forever, so conversations on WhatsApp shouldn’t have to either, according to Mr. Khan. “Things like text messages had a very different use case over a decade ago—they were used more for one-off coordination, because of the limited characters and the spottiness of connection,” he said. “But now smartphones have proliferated and people always have their phones with them, they’re using WhatsApp messaging for very deep and intimate conversations.”

That led WhatsApp’s product team to rethink its assumptions about how the service should work, Mr. Khan said. They hope the new feature will encourage more people to host personal conversations on the platform, confident that their messages won’t come back to haunt them, he said.

The feature may also help Facebook boost engagement on WhatsApp, according to Miguel Alvarez, global chief technology officer of digital agency AnalogFolk Ltd. He said users may check in on conversations more if they are afraid of missing something important. People in group chats may also be motivated to chime in to keep WhatsApp conversations from going empty, he added. “Data and privacy are clearly important in this,” Mr. Alvarez said, “but really it almost forces users to keep a conversation ongoing.”

The concept of sending a disappearing message was popularized in the early 2010s by Snapchat, which let users send ephemeral photos to their contacts.

Snapchat’s novel messaging experience alarmed some people, said Ysabel Gerrard, lecturer in digital media and society at the University of Sheffield. Critics feared that disappearing messages would make it harder to hold people accountable for their actions online and risked enabling behavior such as cyberbullying and nonconsensual sharing of sexual imagery, she said. Those concerns died down as the format became more familiar, she said.

Telegram Group Inc., one of WhatsApp’s biggest competitors, also offers a “self-destructing messages” option within its messenger product, letting users set a time limit on the visibility of their messages and media. Some Twitter users likewise set their feeds to auto-delete.

WhatsApp believes the seven-day deletion period gives its system an advantage over apps that erase messages as soon as they are read, meaning people can forget what they have been talking about or lose useful information, he said.

“In testing we found that seven days is long enough that you won’t forget what you’re talking about, but still short enough that you’re given peace of mind that this is a place where you can have a free conversation,” Mr. Khan said.

The company’s user-research team will study how people respond to the feature, and consider whether to recommend additions such as the ability to protect locked messages from deletion. It will also track whether disappearing messages lead to a change in user behavior on the platform, Mr. Khan said.