The End of the Social Network, the Dawn of the Social Object

April 5, 2014

A few friends and I are sitting on the couch in our living room, when Kerry receives a Snapchat from our mutual friend Matt. It’s a video. “I’m opening it!” she exclaims. Panic ensues. We’re sure it’s going to be hilarious — and we only have 5 seconds to take it in. Sienna and I leap across the armchair and plop down next to Kerry right as she holds her thumb down in the bottom right of her iPhone screen.

It doesn’t matter what the video was — the point is that it’s gone now.

A few years ago I wrote an essay on the importance of designing information objects for share-ability. That was in 2012, when Facebook went public.

My argument then was that the network a piece of content originates on doesn’t matter — in favor of condemning it to life on only that network, it should be designed and packaged to take on a life of its own as it travels from place to place.

Now networks, it seems, are dissolving into content. Even the largest social network can’t maintain its outer walls. As MG Siegler puts it, “we’re entering the era of the great unbundling of Facebook.”

“There are powerful categories emerging that once fell under the “social” umbrella that can now stand on their own. The latest ones that interest me are based around new types of specific intents,” he explains, pointing out that photos were the first to break free of the walls of a larger network — then messaging became an independent use case.

As Peter Morville pointed out in Ambient Findability in 2005, “at the heart of many of today’s killer applications lies the power and prevalence of gossip.” The social network has long built on the idea of “communal construction of meaning,” presented by Bruno G. Bara in his study Cognitive Pragmatics. Once an information object is put out into the ether, the internet works together to construct the significance of it.

But are people sick of communal expression?

“Part of Snapchat’s lightweight appeal is that message recipients can’t comment on a photo you’ve sent,” says Ellis Hamburger in a The Verge article on the science of Snapchat’s success. It’s not just the ephemeral nature of the content, but the fact that once we huddled together to laugh over Matt’s video on Snapchat, we’d exhausted its greater meaning.

Total control — that seems to be the prevailing advantage of using Snapchat to distribute a simple visual commentary you might otherwise send on a network with more permanence.

Total freedom, then, might be the motivator that explains the rise of the anonymous social network. In the growing genre of apps that include Secret, Rumr, Whisper and the recently shuttered Rando, the social object is longer lasting, but will never be credited to its owner.

“Anonymity reduces our hesitation to create and express ourselves,” says Ryan Hoover. Fear of judgement is a consistent thread in the discussion — as our resumes are slowly replaced by our digital reputations, no social network is a safe place to think out loud.

The buzz surrounding these apps is no surprise — the physiological attraction we have to sharing dirty secrets in a public forum was long ago popularized in high school bathroom stalls, and even in a wildly popular art-project-come-book-series.

This space is growing quickly — and catching the eye of Silicon Valley’s top investors — with more players like WUT, Shrtwv etc putting their own spin on the anonymous social object. Their success is unclear, but their existence is telling.

When the founders of Snapchat pitched the product to Lightspeed Ventures, they insisted it would create “a more real and authentic mode of communication, one where you weren’t “performing” for every present audience in most social media.”

Performing online will still have its place. But Instagram’s one-to-one messaging option, recently replicated in a similar feature by Vine, makes it clear that even in a massive public forum, we’re hungry for more ways to speak in secrecy.

I’m excited to watch communication become more and more fragmented; maybe it’s a growing social anxiety that will force us to reach for new ways to interact.