Twitter announced this morning that it was testing a type of disappearing post called “Fleets,” which is a play on words that I shouldn’t have to explain to you. Think of Fleets as analogous to Stories or other types of expiring media. According to Wired, “Fleets will also have a limit of 280 characters, like regular tweets, with the option to add images, videos, or GIFs, but users won’t be able to retweet, like, or publicly reply.”
There are obvious use cases for this type of feature, already proven by the popularity of Stories. Ephemeral media allows people to post without worrying (too much) about a paper trail. Twitter moves at a faster pace than most other social-media platforms, and many tweets rely on the context of the Zeitgeist. If you don’t see a post in the moment at which it is most relevant, it might seem unintelligible or, worse, deeply offensive. Users have had to create their own solutions, crafting apps that automatically delete tweets after a certain period of time, rather than let them ferment into a liability. (Weirdly, automatically deleting data from the social network is one user-generated feature that Twitter doesn’t want to bring in-house.)
The new solution, Fleets, is being tested only in Brazil right now, but the interface will look familiar to anyone who has posted a Story. A bar of circular user avatars at the top show who has posted a piece of expiring content.
Expiring tweets are obviously meant to encourage people to post more, but they are also a growth-hacking tactic for lurkers. Their temporary nature all but requires users to follow people they might not otherwise care about, turn on more push notifications, or at the very least check the app more frequently.
These features are useful from a safety standpoint, but just to a certain extent. All disappearing media is susceptible to screenshots and screen recordings. Among Twitter’s most active users, screenshotting bad tweets that one expects to be deleted is a well-founded pastime. There is a growing content economy out there for archived supposedly temporary content from celebrities and influencers. If you meet a certain threshold of online notoriety (or if you’ve pissed off one very dedicated person), features like Fleets and Stories don’t really matter, and social-media sites implicitly encourage people to grow their followings. In effect, the platforms seem to want people to make use of ephemeral media until they can’t safely do so anymore. All of which is to say that Fleets might give people peace of mind, but how much they’ll actually make Twitter a less argumentative and toxic place remains to be seen. I wouldn’t get my hopes up.