It has now been six months since I documented my tenth grade sister’s technology habits. Intrigued by what I learned, I’ve gone on to ask many more “normal” people, of all ages, about the products that they use on a regular basis. This post is an attempt to string those conversations together, at a high level, and offer a proposal for what The Next Facebook might look like.
The Internet Turns 21
Thanks to the smartphone, people are adopting new social services faster than ever. However, folks are drawn to these products for their novel interactions — not novel networks of people — making them more analogous to games than social networks.
For all that has been written about Facebook missing the boat on mobile, iPhones and Androids are a true threat to the company for a reason that is rarely mentioned:
Smartphones have made your “social graph” portable, without Facebook’s permission.
Today, your social graph lives in a brown box, called Contacts, on your iPhone’s home screen — allowing you to effortlessly connect with your friends on new social networks, in only a tap or two. Previously, Facebook’s competitive advantage was that it took a lot effort to establish social connections on new services. With Contacts access, that’s less true. Thus, people are flocking to new services.
It’s sort of like the Internet just turned twenty-one! Before, you could only drink in your friend’s suburban basement. Now all of a sudden you can go wherever you want — clubs, bars, you name it. Sure, the basement is still fun sometimes but it’s not your only watering hole. Previously, people just hung out on Facebook (seriously, they even took Chat from AIM). Today, your friends are hanging out at places like Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine, too. Same faces, new places!
As a serial snapper and newfound photographer, I’m a big fan of this trend, and I think people will continue to adopt new products that provide novel ways of interacting with friends. Address book import has made it too easy not to give new things a shot. That being said, “social networks” are ultimately successful because of the “network” (i.e., people) part — Facebook has friends, LinkedIn has professional contacts, Twitter has celebrities and brands — not the “social” part. Yet novel social interactions, not novel networks of people, are exactly what are drawing people to burgeoning apps like Snapchat.
Whereas Facebook’s initial value proposition was who was there (“Princeton University Network”), today’s popular social products are compelling because of what you do once you get there. They provide new ways of interacting with the same people we’ve been hanging out with on the Internet with all along: our friends. And thanks to the ability to let apps access your phone’s contacts, no single company owns your social graph anymore.
As a result, my hunch is that for a company to become The Next Facebook, it will need to enable a novel network of people. That’s not to say it won’t start with your friends — Twitter didn’t have Oprah on Day One — but ultimately its network will need to look different than your Address Book. Otherwise, it’ll just be another watering hole.
The House Party
There’s a small population of early Internet users that grew up using services, like Forums, where interacting with relative strangers was the thing to do. Those folks probably snickered when they read this sentence:
…the people we’ve been hanging out with on the Internet all along: our friends.
For good reason, too! Forums, BBS, IRC: The new connections and communities that these tools engender are what makes the World Wide Web (of People) so special. However, interacting with “strangers” online is (resoundingly) not something that “normal” people do often, if ever. Essentially, anyone who went through puberty with Facebook has only known an Internet that is filled with familiar faces. My hunch is that The Next Facebook will change that. In fact, I think that will be its core (though probably implicit) value proposition: interacting with cool people that you don’t know, or don’t know that well.
When you talk to “normal” people they’ll tell you that they don’t want to “meet strangers” or “make new friends” on the Internet — especially when framed that way. But when you observe their behavior you’ll notice that they’re obsessively curious about people they don’t know, and relish the opportunity to connect when it is socially acceptable. For example, did you know that teens are obsessed with Instagram’s Following tab? It exposes them to people and photos outside of their network, provided that somebody they know has interacted with it. “It’s how you get lost in Instagram,” one person said. Similar behavior happpens on Facebook, too.
At a higher-level, interacting with people you don’t know makes a lot of sense when you think about all of the contexts that enable this behavior in the real world. Take house parties, for example. Though they’re often intimidating, there’s nothing like drifting into an awesome conversation with someone new — especially if you have friends in common, or were both personally invited by the host. In the context of a house party, it’s okay (if not expected) to talk to people that you don’t know. On the Internet, the opposite is true.
A story from a recent college graduate highlights this difference best: Facebook’s Graph Search was turned on for her and she was amazed at the people she could find. “Mutual friends in the double-digits and identical musical tastes and they like Lost In Translation?!” They would definitely hit it off if they had the opportunity to connect. Facebook gave her two options to do exactly that: Add Friend or Message. Did she do either? “Of course not! That would be so fucking creepy.” Indeed, it would be — on Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat. It wouldn’t be awkward, however, to strike up a conversation at your mutual friend’s rooftop party. Or in a Subreddit or IRC Channel.
For anyone who grew up with Facebook, the Internet is a place to hang out with friends. For those of you who grew up on Forums, you know that it’s so, so much more. It is inevitable that the masses will eventually feel the same way too. We’re just waiting for someone to step up and host the house party.