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Al Gore credits Snapchat's success to 'stalker economy'

During a talk at SXSW 2013, the former vice president says the popular photo app appeals to people because it erases the risk of a permanent record.

James Martin/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas -- Now you see it, now you don't. That's the playful logic behind Snapchat, a mobile application that's popular with teens for sending disappearing photo messages to friends. But the application's success may be more rooted in a growing collective consciousness around the idea that we're always being watched.

Former Vice President Al Gore told attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, during an animated and often politically charged discussion with journalist Walt Mossberg, that Snapchat's success is likely linked to people reaching their digital gagging points.

We live in a stalker economy, Gore said. "The stalker economy, I hope, is causing people to reach a gag point."

In essence, Snapchat represents that retch point -- but for a different reason than you'd probably expect, considering the application's sexting reputation. The service, which recently raised $13.5 million in funding, doesn't exactly evoke the notion of hyperaware users, but it certainly does appeal to tweens and teens looking to avoid the watchful eyes of their parents, and it also just so happens to help them avoid creating an incriminating digital trail that can't be expunged from their online permanent record.

Gore's stalker economy includes RFID tags, cookies, apps that track our every movement, and so forth. This always-aware existence is a component of one of the six drivers of global change identified in the environmentalist's latest book, "The Future."

Specifically, Gore refers to this trend as the emergence of the global mind, or "the connection of the thoughts and feelings of billions of people to each other, and to increasingly intelligent devices."

Gore talked about the trend, also referred to as the "Internet of things" in some circles, as being both perilous and ripe for opportunity. Swiss dairy farmers are embedding intelligent sensors into cattle so that when one comes into heat, she texts the farmer, he said as an example.

The Snapchat reference alone won Gore the approbation of the tech-steeped crowd in Austin, some of whom tweeted their surprise and delight at hearing him name-check such a trendy application.

During the discussion, Gore also touched on the five other drivers mentioned in the book including the emergence of "Earth Inc." and, of course, the climate crisis.