“This message will self-destruct”—a long-held spy movie (and Inspector Gadget) trope. In the digital era, this privacy feature has come in the form of disappearing messages, with Snapchat introducing the concept as a novelty nearly a decade ago. It’s proved to be a slow-growing but enduring trend: In recent weeks, WhatsApp, the world’s biggest chat app, added functionality for messages to be viewed only once.
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How do disappearing messages work?
The feature gives you the option to send texts and other media that will be deleted from the recipient’s app automatically—either immediately or after a period of time.
The main benefit of disappearing messages is preventing the recipient from having a copy of photos or messages you send. This helps keep your communications private—to a degree. There are ways the recipient can still keep copies of what you send even if they disappear quickly, such as via screenshots or simply by taking a photo of the message with a different device.
Chances are your favorite chat apps already have this feature. Here’s how you can enable disappearing messages on your messaging app.
WhatsApp disappearing messages and ‘view once’
By enabling disappearing messages on WhatsApp for specific contacts, your messages will be automatically deleted after seven days—regardless of whether they’ve been read or not. WhatsApp says this feature is meant to help “the conversation feel lighter and more private.” Keep in mind that your messages might stick around if the recipient quotes it in a reply, forwards it, has auto-download enabled for photos, etc.
WhatsApp’s new “view once” feature lets you send a picture or a video that automatically gets deleted after the recipient has opened it. It won’t be saved to the recipient’s photo collection even if they have auto-download turned on. If the recipient does not open the photo or video within 14 days, it will get deleted from the chat.
To enable WhatsApp disappearing messages, first open the WhatsApp app and tap your chosen contact’s name, then tap “Disappearing Messages” and toggle it on.
To use WhatsApp’s “view once” feature, tap the symbol with a “1” after selecting the media file you want to send.
Instagram Vanish Mode
With Instagram’s Vanish Mode, sent messages disappear once the recipient closes the chat window after viewing its contents. Vanish Mode only works for one-to-one conversations and can’t be toggled on for group chats, and the message sender is alerted if a screenshot has been taken.
To switch on Instagram Vanish Mode, simply open an existing chat (or start a new chat) with someone, then swipe up on the bottom of the screen and release. You’ll know that Vanish Mode is enabled when the screen turns black, accompanied by falling “shush” emojis.
Telegram Secret Chat
Unlike some of the other apps, Telegram doesn’t have a mode solely for disappearing messages—rather, it offers an end-to-end encrypted messaging feature, known as Secret Chat.
In Secret Chats, messages can’t be forwarded to other chats, and when you delete your messages from the chat, the recipient will be ordered to delete them as well. It also features an in-chat customizable Self-Destruct Timer, so you can set individual messages to disappear anytime between a minute to one week.
Secret Chats are device-specific, so you won’t be able to access a chat on, say, your computer, if you started it on your phone. If you log out of Telegram, or if you delete a Secret Chat, all its contents will be gone for good. A Secret Chat only works for one-on-one chats, but you can start as many Secret Chats as you want with the same user.
To start a Telegram Secret Chat, open the profile of the contact you want to start a chat with, tap on the three dots icon (…), then select “Start Secret Chat.”
Signal disappearing messages
One of the first chat apps to include this feature, Signal uses a disappearing message timer to countdown to a message’s purge. You’ll know if a message has been sent to disappear if there’s a ticking timer icon at the bottom of the message bubble. For sent messages, this timer activates once it’s been sent; for received messages, the timer starts after you’ve viewed it.
Disappearing messages on Signal can be enabled for any and all chats, even for groups, and can be managed by anyone included in the chat. The timer syncs on your account across all devices.
You can toggle on Signal disappearing messages by going to your Signal Settings > Privacy > Default timer for new chats. Select a time (max four weeks), then tap “Save” for Android or “Set” for iOS.
Snapchat (default messages)
Known for offering an ephemeral experience, Snapchat’s messages and Snaps are, by default, instantly erased once both users have opened and closed the chat.
Snapchatters who prefer to keep their chat messages from disappearing immediately can also set their chats to be deleted 24 hours after viewing instead. All Group Chat messages will be automatically deleted after 24 hours whether they were read, and unopened chats will also be scrubbed after 30 days.
Facebook Messenger Secret Conversations
Messenger is Facebook’s popular instant messaging app, through which users can text, send photos and other media, and call other Facebook contacts. However, Messenger conversations still aren’t fully encrypted by default—and won’t be for at least a few years.
Enter Messenger’s Secret Conversations. This opt-in feature creates an end-to-end encrypted chat between two users, giving both a unique device key that can be used to verify that the messages are secure. Unlike regular Messenger, a timer can also be set to delete the message automatically, and a padlock icon will be displayed next to your contact’s name to demarcate the chat as a Secret Conversation.
At the moment, Secret Conversations are only available in the Messenger app for iOS and Android and are device-specific; you won’t be able to initiate nor view them on Facebook chat, messenger.com, and on your desktop or any other device that wasn’t originally linked.
To start a Facebook Secret Conversation, tap the draft new message icon from the home tab, tap “Secret” in the top right, and select your intended recipient. You may also tap the timer icon in the text box to set the messages to disappear. A Secret Conversation will also have a slightly different appearance, with a black/grey message bubble.
Gmail confidential mode
Disappearing messages aren’t just for social media and message apps—Gmail has an equivalent feature, too, known as confidential mode. With confidential mode enabled, you’ll be able to set expiration times for email messages and even revoke access at any time. The usual options of email forwarding, copying, printing, and downloading, will all be disabled.
You can enable Gmail confidential mode on either your computer or mobile device in the following ways:
For computers, first open up Gmail on your browser, click “Compose,” and click “Turn on confidential mode” in the bottom right of the window. You’ll then have the option to set an expiration date and passcode.
For Android and iOS, first open the Gmail app > Compose > More . . . > Confidential mode, and turn it on. You can then choose to set an expiration date and passcode.
Should you use disappearing messages?
There are several advantages to using disappearing messages. It’s a way to keep your conversations and archives tidy by auto-deleting any messages that aren’t important. For the privacy-conscious, this feature adds a layer of security, as there’s a lower risk of having your conversation intercepted or disseminated. And by setting sensitive messages to disappear, you won’t have to worry as much if your device falls into the wrong hands.
That being said, disappearing messages have their downsides. You would prefer to keep records for situations involving financial transactions, scams, or online abuse. And in terms of privacy, while taking screenshots are blocked on certain apps, recipients may still be able to get around these measures by taking photos or making copies of your content using a different device or specialized software.
While there’s no surefire way to guarantee your communications stays between you and your sendee, the general rule of thumb is that you should only share sensitive or confidential information with someone you already know and trust.
What’s your experience with disappearing messages? Let us know in the comments.
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