Impermanence, our adaptive unconscious and the paradox of choice
Glimpse is a messaging app. What makes it unique, however, raises far more fundamental questions about how we communicate digitally than I think it’s creators ever intended. I caught up with George Steiner, one of the app’s creators, to explain Glimpse.
Adam: So, what is Glimpse?
George: Glimpse brings the benefits of in-person interaction to today’s most popular communication medium: Messaging. Glimpse is different than any other ephemeral messaging app out there because it actually simulates real life conversations. As you read words in a message they disappear, so there are no self-destruct timers. As soon as you’ve read all the words in the message, the message is gone forever. This means it’s impossible to take a screenshot of a Glimpse, or read it and then show it to a friend next to you.
Adam: Sounds pretty interesting, how would the end user interact with it?
George: You compose a Glimpse just like you would a regular text message, pick the recipient and type your message – nothing special there. Once you send the Glimpse, the other user will be notified that they have a new Glimpse with a push notification. They get to choose when to read the Glimpse (it’s waiting for them in the app). Once they open it, the message starts and it can’t be stopped (so make sure you have a few seconds of undivided attention!). As you read the words in a message they disappear, and as soon as you’ve read all the words in the message, the message is gone forever.
I have to agree with George that Glimpse “brings the benefits of in-person interaction” to messaging. What I think makes Glimpse so exciting is that it’s bridging the gap between how we communicate in-person to how we communicate digitally.
Digital communication is becoming ever more fragmented, as wave after wave of developers and start-ups bring to market apps that offer marginally different ways to converse with your friends. What I find interesting is the way Glimpse is trying to mimic the fundamental principles of in-person conversation. Well, at least give us the next best thing in a digital context anyways.
You receive a glimpse, “nothing new there” George quite rightly says, but if you decide to open it then you must “make sure you have a few seconds of undivided attention”. Why? Because that message is impermanent. When you read it, you have no chance to read it again. You respond emotionally, as you don’t have the message to go back to, you can’t fall back on any sort of rational thinking. Much like in-person.
If I was having a friendly conversation with to you, and half way through the I said “hold on for 5 minutes, I’m going to write down what you said, think about the best response and I’ll be with you when I’m ready”, it’s weird right? I’m pretty confident we’re in agreement. It just doesn’t happen.
So why is it like this with text?
Billy Gallagher got it spot on in a similar article, “Text messages are the closest thing to real-life conversations and, in many cases, it doesn’t make sense for them to be stored permanently.”
So, I think George and the Glimpse team are on to something. Let’s skip to the end of the interview;
Adam: Do you see Glimpse as just an app? or as something the represents something larger?
George: When we first started working on Glimpse, it was just a private messaging app. But now that I’ve been using it, it’s definitely more than just privacy… when you get a Glimpse, there’s suspense as you wait for each word, just like a real conversation. And even if just for a few seconds, your friend has your complete undivided attention while you read what they have to say (which is something that seems to be lacking today where we do more multitasking than ever before). It’s an incredible feeling, but it’s hard to explain with words, you have to try it to understand.
Adam: Getting quite deep now and purely optional… Do you think how we behave online and how we behave in person mirror each other?
George: Not at all. I don’t know if it’s a bad thing, but people are definitely different digitally than in person, at least in some ways. Sometimes being behind a screen or username allows us to open up more, while at other times the permanent nature of the internet can make you extremely cautious and nervous about posting anything.
The progression from a privacy mindset I think was inevitable once you start to think of the app in a different context. Sure people want privacy, but I don’t think people ever wanted the way we communicate to change.
Two schools of impermanent thought
Whilst pondering on the magnitude of the app, two major schools of thought crossed my mind.
The first comes from Malcolm Gladwell, I’d argue one of the most influential thinkers of the past 20 years, published Blink. Blink is a book about trusting our instincts, or as he puts it, “our adaptive unconscious”. He iterates that our sub-conscious can make a correct decision in milliseconds, that if dwelled and thought on for longer, perhaps hours, days even months, would produce a totally different and more often than not wrong decision.
I feel echos of this with Glimpse. When you send a text, I don’t want the person thinking through their reply. I want that raw, gut instinct response. I want the recipients adaptive unconscious to produce an answer that I know is true, in the truest sense of the word. This response, is an emotional response. It’s a response delivered in the moment, in the present. It’s the gift of in-person interaction.
The second, from Barry Schwartz. I first heard of him from his TED talk “The Paradox of Choice”. In it, he explains that the definition of freedom is to have a choice. To be free to make any decision based on your own needs and desires. But with this comes the paradox. The more choice we have, the unhappier we become. Put simply, the more options we have the less happy we are with our final decision because we could have chosen a different path and that different path could of made us happier. The secret to life, Schwartz says, is low expectations. Pretty bleak… right?
Now, I see the paradox of choice rearing it’s ugly head with text messaging. You receive a text, you read it and put your device back in your pocket. You may have an idea of what you want to say but you leave it for a minute. You pull it back out, you read it again and you may have another idea. The choice is born. The paradox comes into play. Which response do you go for? The paradox dictates that any choice you go for will not make you happy. Sure, you may believe you sent the right text… but you could also have sent a different one. Because you had the text, the data, to refer back to and rationalise your response.
You don’t get this with Glimpse… and that’s what I love.
The trend of the future, I feel, will be to make real-world interactions possible through digital. Which has led me, quite boldly, to submit a theory. Which I’ll affectionately call Glimpse Theory.
Glimpse Theory is the notion that communications that are permanent activate a different parts of the brain to impermanent messages. Permanent communications rely on rationalised emotions whereas impermanent ones rely on emotional responses, on our inherent in-person communication skills. Glimpse theory states that impermenant communication will make us happier, form closer relationships and replace texting as the informal communication medium.
Thoughts? I’d love to hear them.
From this interview, a previous blog I wrote and trends in digital behaviour, here’s some further reading why impermanent self-expression and communication may indeed be the future of messaging, and a march towards the impermanent internet.