Growing old in the age of social apps


In the wake of Facebook’s gargantuan acquisition of messaging app WhatsApp, time to revisit a column I wrote for The Irish Times at the end of last year about the inevitable plurality of social apps.

From The Irish Times, December 2nd, 2013

At a certain point, everybody who writes about technology has to attempt to capture a developing trend in a pithy phrase and hope that it enters into such widespread use that it becomes a universally recognised principle.

So here’s my effort at coining Davin’s Law: “Technological old age is the point at which you have more social apps on your smartphone than you have friends whom you actually want to communicate with on a regular basis.”

Admittedly, this is partly a tongue-in-cheek observation of how even the most ardent of social butterflies inevitably finds their social circle dwindling with every passing year, but more than that, it is supposed to point to the seemingly endless profusion of social and messaging apps that keep pouring on to the market.

You wouldn’t have to be a particularly voracious early adopter to be faced with a choice of Gmail, iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Line, Viber, BBM, MessageMe, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Branch, LinkedIn or Instagram the next time you wanted to shoot a message off to someone. Some people apparently even make use of Google+, for God’s sake.

The bewildering unbundling of the digital communications market is certainly worthy of a punchline or two, but it’s also worth pointing out because it paints Facebook’s huge $3 billion bid for private messaging and photo-sharing app Snapchat in a rather unflattering light.
There was no shortage of sceptics who looked at Snapchat’s current revenues – zero dollars, there or thereabouts – and thought Mark Zuckerberg had taken leave of his senses.

But I can’t help but feel that Zuckerberg’s huge bid for Snapchat isn’t eye-poppingly daft just because it’s inflated, though it certainly seems to be that. No, I reckon the real reason the bid is daft is because Zuckerberg basically offered to pay $3 billion for something he already had and intentionally destroyed – the trust of his users.

Before its IPO last year, I wrote a column about the failure of Facebook – a failure not in a business sense, obviously, but a more elemental sort of failure. Initially, if we recall the days of enthusiastic early adoption circa 2007, Facebook promised to build a platform to help people to keep in touch with their friends in a remarkably low-friction way.

But the relentless series of Facebook privacy fiascos marked a betrayal of that promise. “Rather than being about sharing content with a chosen circle of friends, it was attempting to coerce its users into essentially curating public blogs,” I wrote.

Our “social graph” had been a way of maintaining contact with friends we would otherwise lose touch with, and therefore a source of joy and indeed comfort. But all those privacy changes undermined that, and in the process turned the site into something vaguely threatening, a potential trap that needed to be constantly negotiated, forever just beyond our control.

Snapchat, which is evanescent by design, at least appears to offer a corrective to that anxiety, returning a sense of control, security and privacy to its users.

In that sense it is very intentionally an anti-Facebook, and the decision of founders Bobby Murphy and Evan Spiegel to reject Zuckerberg’s offer is eminently sensible when seen through that prism.

Ultimately, it’s important to realise that privacy isn’t merely about who has access to our data. It is in fact much more fundamental, and elusive, than that – the level of perceived privacy and control determines the level of our trust in the medium, and that in turn determines the way we communicate with one another on the medium.

It is this way with all our speech and communication – we behave one way in public and another in private; write one way in a work-related email and another way texting a friend; speak one way with our boss and another way with our family. The tonal variations are often subtle and subconscious, on occasions more obvious and determined, but controlling such variations is a fundamental part of what it is to be human.

And this is one reason why we have a never-ending variety of “social” apps – they fulfil different uses, facilitating variations in tone in different social contexts, albeit digital social contexts. Thus, our tone in workplace emails is decidedly different from our tone on Tumblr; the character of our text messages might be different to the character of our tweets; the sort of photos we post to Tumblr might be different than those we post to Instagram, and they are most definitely different to the photos we swap on Snapchat.

I’m sure Zuckerberg is aware of this – he’d need to be a veritable automaton not to. But both his statements regarding the dwindling importance of “privacy” and his actions, such as building an ill-fated Facebook email and buying every new social app that grows fast, suggest that he really thinks that Facebook can achieve a sort of hegemony in digital social communications apps. Zuckerberg’s vision is a world where the only “social” app on our smartphones is the Facebook app.

But that vision disregards our natural inclination to converse in infinitely varying ways using infinitely varying tools. And while that law I just coined is more facetious than fact, it is probably closer to reality than Zuckerberg’s dream of a Facebook-centric digital social universe ever will be.

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