Social Is Still Important

There’s this popular attitude of incomprehension towards Facebook, Instagram, and other successful social startups. You might have noticed it when Pinterest entered the mainstream about a year ago, or during the Instagram acquisition, or even today:

I don’t know why people use Pinterest.

I don’t understand the point of Instagram.

Or, more commonly, I can understand why, but I just don’t get it.

That wouldn’t be a problem for a domain like data analytics or deep machine learning, but it’s a strange attitude to hold towards social media, especially for someone who is probably an avid technology user who designs or builds web or mobile applications. Chances are, if you’re expressing your incomprehension on Facebook, Twitter, or Quora, you use those tools to share and document your life, and you can probably relate to the issues raised by these products:

  • Snapchat, which deals with the persistence of our communications and our growing inability to erase them (a problem the tech community has blogged about and discussed to no end).
  • Pinterest, which replicates the social behavior of collecting things, one with many real-life analogues like clipping magazines and browsing catalogs.
  • Instagram, a social layer through which a very influential demographic operates their smartphone cameras.

None of these explanations are particularly original. In fact, they’re almost obvious to anyone who takes a few minutes to think. But somehow, it’s still acceptable, even in the tech world, to proclaim ignorance about social media, whether it is in opinion pieces criticizing tech’s focus on social, or in comments and decisions made while designing and building applications.

In one fable, a old fish swimming downstream encounters a younger fish and asks him, “How’s the water?”

“It’s great!” he says.

After swimming for a few more seconds, he wonders, “What’s water?”

As readers, writers, and technologists, we swim in the proverbial water of electronic media. We are accustomed to the media we work with, which may be Facebook, Twitter, or Medium. And we are used to passing judgement — or altogether avoiding — media which we are unfamiliar with. Some of those media are focused on consumption (Pinterest) while others target specific demographics (Snapchat) or behaviors (Instagram). They might even involve values and behaviors we find ethically questionable or morally objectionable.

As a result, we all too often forget about the real reasons people use social applications — especially when our dialogue happens in echo chambers like TechCrunch or Hacker News, where public opinion about social media swings wildly between unwarranted praise and unjustified criticism.

Social behavior provides the foundation for most of the modern economy. It’s the reason consumer sectors like restaurants, nightclubs, and advertising exist. Our social relationships influence how we play and where we find work; they determine if we are happy or lonely. So it makes complete sense that social applications are popular and profitable.

Some people would maintain that the amount of time people spend building social applications is still excessive. There are more important things that we could be working on, and I agree. But even that opinion suffers from a lack of perspective regarding the larger world.

Most people in today’s world spend their time trying to create or influence culture and social behavior — either in an industry, like advertising, media, design, or entertainment, or perhaps in a political campaign or cultural group or community organization. If we evaluated these organizations using the same criteria we judge technology with, we would also find them to be uninnovative and oversized.

But the importance of culture and social behavior also means that, as technology users and technology builders, we are influential. The tools we build enable new interactions, either by making them technically possible (Formspring, Snapchat) or socially plausible (Quora, Medium). They can enable confessions, encourage whistleblowers, and coordinate activists. At work, project management tools can influence the hierarchy of organizations, or alter the balance of power between small companies and large corporations.

But we can only build these tools responsibly if we see the bigger picture that social media exists within, so we can avoid the trap of building superficial products, and instead focus on how social is still very significant.