There’s a line that I wrote in my recent post on social networks that’s been sticking around my head ever since I typed it: “Venmo is a much more creative social application than Mastodon is.” That line got me thinking about just what makes a social application…”social”, and I’m starting to think that a lot of what we term “social” applications aren’t really “social,” but something else entirely.
I guess the first thing that needs to happen is to define what I consider to be a “social” application. My working definition of a “social” application is “an application that takes advantage of the people you have a real-world relationship with to solve a problem.” This begs the question of what about applications like Twitter, where it’s possible to be “connected” (in the case of an app like Twitter, to “follow”) someone you didn’t have any real connection to. I’m starting to define those applications as “community” applications. Specifically, a community application is “an application that allows people to interact directly, regardless of whether or not they know each other in real life.” Another way of thinking about this is that a social app is an app that involves interacting with the people in your address book (or contacts list on your phone), whereas a community app is an app that lets you interact with people that you haven’t necessarily met.
What’s probably most interesting is the fact that Facebook seems to straddle the line between both types of applications. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, but they can also follow public figures, businesses, etc. There’s also the fairly loose definition of “friend” a lot of Facebook users employ when connecting with other users on the site. This puts Facebook in an interesting position in terms of the social vs. community app debate, and serves to illustrate its complete dominance as an application for interacting with people.
I consider Venmo a “social” app because it relies on individuals the user already has a relationship with (it’s using Facebook as it’s source of a connection between individuals instead of the user’s contacts list, but that still works because Facebook works as both a social and community app). What makes Venmo more compelling as a social application than say, Mastodon is the fact that Venmo is taking advantage of who its users know to solve a non-communications problem (namely paying people back in a largely cash-less society), whereas Mastodon itself is largely a replication of something that’s already heavily used and effectively already “solved.”
As I mentioned earlier, my working definition of what makes an app a “social” app is that it’s designed to use your existing address book (or contacts list of you whipper-snappers out there) to handle the connections between you and people you know. In other words, the connection part of social apps will mirror your real-life connections. This is what we typically think of when we think of “social” applications. It’s what lets us keep up with old and current friends and family, not to mention help our interactions with them (thinking back to the problem Venmo solves).
The downside to social applications is that it’s harder to find a business model. Ad-support is a little tougher to sell since these apps are built around personal interactions, and to be honest, how many businesses are in your personal contacts list? I have no problem admitting that for me it’s just one, and that’s a take-out restaurant. We don’t really have “personal” relationships with businesses. That was a concept introduced by Facebook when it invited businesses aboard to support it’s ad strategy (not because there’s a real-world analogue to this).
Community applications are a good way to promote yourself online to people who are interested in whatever sort of thing you do. It’s what businesses like about what we call “social” applications right now, namely a (ostensibly) free way to advertise to their customers. It’s also the type of thing public figures think about when talking about connecting directly with fans/supporters/voters/etc., and what we think about when we want to promote something we did (blog post, recorded a music album, whatever). The good news for applications like these is that they’re much more amenable to the advertising business model than social applications. Users are already signing up to interact with entities they don’t really have a relationship with, so ads aren’t nearly so disruptive.
The downside to community applications is that there’s less of a compelling up-front reason to use them. “Sign up for this app so you can see marketing posts from businesses and promotional posts from people hyping their blog/side project/etc.” isn’t really an appealing sales pitch. Community applications have to offer something really valuable in exchange for shoving people we have no real relationship with into our day-to-day lives.
Can 1 app really do both?
Part of the issue I see in the “social app” landscape is that most of these “social apps” are trying to be both types of apps at once. The only real exception I’ve seen are the “social applications” that promise to replicate sites like Facebook and Twitter, but without ads, and often without the apparent business plan. Personally, I’m starting to think that playing both roles isn’t something that a single app can do well. Even Facebook seems to be acknowledging that fact, with its announcement that the news feed will focus more on posts from friends and family, moving the app back towards it’s social roots. I’m a do one thing and do it well kind of guy, so personally I favor the idea behind picking whether you want to be a social or community application and focusing on that.
There are people who clearly wished Facebook would have instead announced a greater focus on being a community application than social application, but the reality is that’s not where Facebook’s roots lie, nor is it what users typically consider valuable about the application. Like Joel Spolsky I use Facebook to keep up with friends and family I don’t live near and wouldn’t be able keep up with otherwise. I signed up for the social application promise, I accepted the community application aspects of business posts and personality pages the necessities for the service to operate.
I’d been ambivalent about Facebook as an application for a while – simply because Facebook has been populating my feed with more “filler” than posts – things that my friends have liked by people that Facebook has no reason to believe I’d be interested in connecting with. This as opposed to just showing me more posts from friends or (heaven forbid) just not showing me a significantly updated news feed from the last time I logged in. I keep my friends list intentionally small, I’m well aware that means I’m likely to see less updates than most people. However, Facebook’s news feed had reached a point where the ads were more relevant than most of the posts. As a user, Facebook’s announcement is to update its news feed algorithm to better fit how I use the application, which is exactly how I want them to behave.
I think we’re reaching a point with what we’ve traditionally called “social applications” where we’re going to start to see a distinctions form between applications that are built around our personal connections and relationships (social applications), and applications that allow us to more easily interact with society at large (community applications). The biggest problem these apps are going to see is that the split also breaks up synergies that the 2 were using to co-exist before. That’s not to say that 1 type of app can’t have components or some features from the other (Facebook certainly isn’t getting rid of public pages or stop allowing businesses to make public posts any time soon), but they’re going to be minor components of the applications at best. This is going to present business model problems for both types of applications – social applications need a means of staying in business, and community applications need a compelling marketing message, but given time I think we’ll see both types of applications solve those problems.