As our culture moves increasingly online, it engenders a certain fear when we consume the media we produce. Between FOMO (the fear of missing out on what others say) and the overwhelming nature of the ever-growing permanent digital trail we leave on servers around the world, there’s often a frantic need to catch up and keep track of everything online. After all, if every tweet and status update is part of an ever-expanding corpus of information—how could we miss out?

Recently, however, a trend among popular apps has been towards focusing on transient communication—updates that are meant to be consumed on the spot, and sometimes quite literally disappear into the digital aether of the web.

During South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual conference on music, film and digital media held each year in Austin, Texas, a new trend seemed to coalesce around a new sort of digital media. Apps such as Meerkat and Snapchat, joined a week later by Twitter’s Periscope, were at the front of the celebration. Unlike other social networks, this new series of apps eschew the permanence of traditional apps. Snapchat’s public videos and pictures disappear after 24 hours; Meerkat and, to a lesser extent, Periscope focus on live video with built-in chat that streams over the phone. Instead of producing specifically created and curated slices of life, these apps focus on a sort of transient immediacy. We get a relatively unvarnished look into someone’s world, and when that window closes, it’s essentially gone.

The author and Sam Sheffer pose for a selfie on Instagram.
The author and Sam Sheffer pose for a selfie on Instagram.

At SXSW I host #openShabbat, an annual unplugged networking event and Shabbat meal, with my wife, Chana. Sam Sheffer, Social Media Manager for the tech and culture site The Verge, joined us for the meal this year. After Shabbat we had a chance to catch up and discuss some of these changes in the social web.

“When I think of Snapchat,” Sheffer said, “there’s a sense of urgency to watch—it’s going to disappear. When you pull back and look at Twitter and Facebook,” apps that leave a long-lasting permanent record that you can scroll back through, “you’re looking at dated feed. When people consume media on these new apps, however, they feel ‘this is recent, this actual.’”

Yet rather than creating an overwhelming sense of urgency, a hyper-sense of FOMO, these apps open up a more more human window into the world around us.

“I think people find these here-and-now apps to be more genuine. They have this deeper sense of reality when it comes to creating and watching. It’s a glimpse of time. You know the person is really there. People want to focus more on what’s real. This is real life.”

While every experience created through an app is curated and filtered to a certain degree, the current trend of ephemeral communication, the “here-and-now” apps, is one that imparts a unique message.

As Sheffer puts it, “You can tap a button and watch a feed of countries all over the world. They provide a real-time human window into the world at large—connecting us.”

If I could take these thoughts a step further, the paradigm created by these apps is truly fascinating. The principal work of Kabbalah, the Zohar, states clearly that the upwelling of wisdom—secular wisdom—before the coming of the Messiah will serve as an onset and preparation for the messianic era.

If technology is truly a portent to transcendent relation, an upwelling of the “wellsprings” from below that allows us to further spread transcendent knowledge in the world, then this new phenomenon of transient communication must surely to convey a special message: All things created do not last. Bound by their inherent limitations, it is only through elevating them by sanctifying them through use for something higher that they gain true permanence.

Our communications on these apps drive this messages home: When all is said and done, the medium will not last; it is only the value of the media—the human connection forged and the positive impression left—that remains. When we realize that the platform truly is ephemeral, that it’s not the likes, clicks or hearts we get but rather the greater world of good that we build, then we can open ourselves to a global audience to share that good—touching the untold lives of those around us.