'This Email Will Self-Destruct After You Read It'

A new messaging service hints at an Internet built on forgetfulness.
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There are, we often hear, several simultaneous Big Battles taking place on—and for—the Internet. Mobile web versus native apps! Open versus walled! Regulated versus free! We are, right at this very moment, approaching a pivotal juncture in the road to The Future Internet.

But the juncture is always pivotal, of course, and the dichotomies presented to us are almost always false ones; the choices and tensions we navigate when it comes to our digital infrastructure are rarely as black-and-white as convenient polarities would have us believe.

There is, though, a tension that is a little more validly either/or than many of its counterparts. And it has to do less with regulation, and less with architecture, and more with the social and cultural choices we make when it comes to the way we communicate online. It asks whether we want an Internet that remembers ... or forgetsIt navigates the space between the Internet's virtually infinite memory and humans' limited ones.

It's the Internet of the Ephemeral—the side of the Internet that gives us Snapchat and Confide and other apps that owe their popularity not just to the fact that they are not Facebook, but also to the fact that they trade, specifically, on their impermanence. While the ongoing archive brings certain pressures—when it comes to performance, when it comes to privacy—self-destructing communications allow us the freedom of the fleeting. Like the also-popular apps Secret and Whisper, they create a kind of cognitive opacity. They offer privacy by way of ephemerality. They are cheekier, more atomized versions of the legal fight being waged in France: the battle for, as it's being called, "the right to be forgotten." 

I mention all that because today we learned that #teamforgetting has a new member: Pluto Mail. The just-launched email service, the Wall Street Journal reports, is the product of two Harvard Law School students who saw a market for email that would, rather than accumulating ad infinitum, simply self-destruct after it's been read. 

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Recipients do not need to use Pluto or install any software to read the emails. Instead, Pluto displays message content as an image, so it’s difficult to copy text to save elsewhere. Pluto’s server can kill the image once the message reaches the user’s prescribed expiration date, but it can’t yank the subject line from the recipient’s email account.

Once an email has been opened, of course, recipients can always save the image to their desktop or take a screenshot to save it forever, just like they can with the vanishing picture-message service Snapchat. Open a terminated email, however, and you are greeted with only: “This message has expired.”

An email sent through Pluto can be recalled anytime and it can be edited after you hit the send button, provided the recipient hasn’t opened it. And you can monitor when emails have been opened.

The point of the service, its creators say? To more closely mimic communications as they play out in offline contexts. “When you have a conversation in real life, it doesn’t follow you for the rest of your life,” Pluto's co-creator, David Gobaud, tells the Journal. “Sure, there are some business emails or emails related to a contract you might want to keep but most other emails, you want them to go away.”

And that, of course, is one of the main (non-sexty) draws of Snapchat: It allows you to mimic interactions as they take place in person. It promises that your communication will endure only within the comforting haze of a selected human memory.

There is sadness in this, certainly; there's also an implied nostalgia. But there's something powerful in it, too. Not only does a service like Pluto have obvious privacy implications—it's hard to have your privacy violated when there is no record to do the violating—but it also makes a statement about how we want to conduct our communications in the first place. Do we want them to be on the record, or off? Do we want them to be permanent, or ephemeral? Do we want an Internet that is, as we are, able to forget ... or one that insists, always, on remembering? 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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