The evolution of social media has followed a pretty linear course. For the sake of this post, I’m defining “social media” as having begun with the age of “friending” — starting with sites like Friendster & MySpace and extending to the current era of Facebook, Instagram & Twitter. From the beginning, social media has been a personalized experience. Something tailored by you and for you. When you log onto your favorite network, you generally see content posted by a list of friends, tastemakers and brands that you’ve followed, subscribed to, or otherwise personally invited to be a part of your daily experience (something preluded by Seth Godin’s 1999 concept of permission marketing).
As social media evolves, networks such as Facebook & Twitter are actively working to take the pain out of personalization by offering new tools to algorithmically suggest relevant content to you. Still, this is uniquely your experience. Few people in this world, if any, will see Facebook the same as you.
Today, the concept of “social media” is constantly being tested and expanded upon. Whether it’s with the ephemeral nature of Snapchat or the anonymity of apps like Whisper and Secret, there are hundreds if not thousands of apps and services available to slice & dice social media to suit the needs of every demographic. In an age where connecting with your peers is everything, the current social media landscape surely has you covered. Doesn’t it?
Simplifying social media
I’ve been a software product manager since 2005, working specifically on social media products since 2011. In the past 5 years, most of my thought power has been focused on one general premise: how can social media be simplified? With countless apps asking users to constantly create unique content, we wanted to take the burden off of our users by enhancing the discovery and engagement of their existing content. In 2014, we launched Mashfeed, a service that complements your existing social media presence by letting you create & share collections of your favorite feeds from the top social media networks. The concept was aimed at alleviating the unfiltered feed problem that started to plague me and many others around that time while also helping you discover quality new feeds to follow.
A new perspective
Still, through all of this, one concept kept prodding at my brain. It relates to that whole “personalization” aspect of social media I began to outline at the beginning of the post. The thought goes as follows: If my social media experience is personalized to me, and there are over 1.5 billion monthly active users on the top social media platform at the time of writing this, then there must be ::beep bop boop:: upwards of 1.5 billion unique social media experiences currently floating around the interwebs. Think about that for a minute.
Even further, each of those 1.5 billion social media experiences is personalized to someone. Each experience hand-tailored and curated by an actual human being. In a time where product managers everywhere are struggling to make creators and curators of their users, it seems we may have been overlooking something that’s been right under our noses this whole time:
Everyone is a curator.
Each time you follow someone on Instagram or subscribe to a channel on YouTube, you are telling the world, “I am down with this.” Your social media feed is like an art gallery you’ve personally curated, but instead of Monets and Warhols hanging on the walls, it’s cats in human clothing, fail videos and photos of exquisitely-designed coffee.
I performed a small experiment to test this idea. Hanging out with a friend one day, I asked him if I could borrow his phone to check something on Instagram. Phone in hand, I scrolled through his Instagram home feed, photo by photo, just as I would on my own phone. Except this wasn’t my phone and, more importantly, it wasn’t my feed. This was his feed, his friends, his brands, his experience. What I found was that I was getting a rare, unfiltered glimpse of his tastes and interests through the guise of an Instagram feed. His feed was unique and colorful and, best of all, it was different. I saw that he follows famous athletes and nature photographers, and even Nicki Minaj (no judgement). In the moments that followed, we talked and joked about who he follows, and discussed the feeds that we have in common. With so many apps out there aimed at eliminating the filters and connecting people authentically, this was by far the most authentic connection I’ve experienced.
It suddenly felt as if I had been viewing social media in grayscale this entire time.
My team and I decided to build a prototype that allows you to experience Instagram as it would appear from the perspective of any other user, making use of the list of feeds they “follow” (less any content that is marked as private). We gave it a nickname that would evoke a sense of seeing the world through a new set of eyes: Being.
Once built, my team and I took the app for a test run by seeing what Instagram looked like from the perspective of some of our favorite celebrities and brands. The first user we loaded was Taylor Swift (you know — because she’s the most followed person on Instagram — definitely not because we secretly wish we were friends with her). The feeling I got when her feed first loaded was indescribable. Scrolling through her feed and seeing posts from her friends and her favorite brands (all 83 of them, compared to the 66 million people that follow her), it felt like we were connecting with this larger-than-life pop star on a personal level. We quickly realized the same feeling of connection applied when viewing Instagram from just about anyone’s perspective. It’s also amazing what you can learn about someone by viewing their feed. We learned that Lady Gaga is into muscle cars, that nearly every big pop star follows the Fat Jew, and that Dan Bilzerian loves guns & women (OK — that last one is obvious, but the app really lets you channel your inner-Bilzerian if that’s what you’re into). I may or may not have also discovered one of my new favorite Instagram feeds through Justin Bieber’s feed (remember — no judgement).
I recently came across an AMA on Reddit held by the one and only Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy). One reader had asked for some advice on how to go about providing information to a naive person without sounding like a “know-it-all.” His response was simple:
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” — Bill Nye
While the context of his response was specific to the question, the message hit home for many readers and commenters at a personal level. What I believe he meant is that we are too often consumed within our own perspectives that we forget that each and every person on this planet has something unique to offer. Something to learn from, something to be appreciated. We hope that Being allows the opportunity to appreciate those unique perspectives and the people behind them.