It’s been something of a strange year for social media, sort of akin to watching a human make the shift from adorable to child to respectable adult.
As children, we are cute and novel enough to the people around us that they forgive us our foibles. As adults, we (usually) bring actual skills to the table, which makes up for the fact that we are no longer quite so cute as we used to be when we couldn’t say the letter “R” and our favorite color was Elmo.
But there is that awkward pass-through known as adolescence that finds all human beings as the absolute lifetime nadir of our adorableness/usefulness. We’re not new enough to be neat, not cute enough to be endearing and not useful enough to actually do anything but irritate the people around us. The only people who greatly look forward to adolescents are the movie studios that pitch 90 percent of films to people looking to take their mind off the ravages of puberty.
And while companies don’t get bad skin, bad attitudes or a limitless number of superhero movies pitched at them, startup efforts in the digital realm do have something of a similar lifestyle as they progress to being respectable grown-up tech firms.
When they’re new and cute (i.e., Pokémon GO), the world will overlook bugs, freezes and some design issues because it’s a glimpse at the future of how mobile gaming can be about connecting digital and physical worlds. Ultimately, people are willing to make the trade-off.
And grown-up firms like Facebook and Google may be less free-wheeling and infused with the spirit of Burning Man and more about maximally monetizing every eyeball they draw and bit of data they produce, but they are really, really useful. In different ways, both firms have created catch-all digital hubs that most people need to interact with multiple times a day for a variety of purposes.
There might be a lot of targeted ads, but there is just no better way to know what your 10th grade biology desk partner is up to right now, or to learn that, statistically speaking, there should be 4 percent more blue M&M’s per bag than there are.
The up-and-comers and still somewhat adolescent firms are trying to bridge that gap, with varying levels of success. Twitter has had a particularly rough year, as it has repeatedly come under fire for being one of the the mobile web’s premier sources for bullies to hang out and pick on just about everyone.
But this summer both Instagram and Snapchat embraced a kinder, gentler and almost kind of cliquey version of their adolescent period with their embrace of “Stories” – a photo and video-sharing format where the stories also disappear after no more than 24 hours.
It might sound like a small improvement, but to New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo, those quiet, private and temporary digital hangouts offer an oasis in social media and a “charming alternative” to the too loud, too busy and public spaces they are seeking to disrupt.
So why all the love — and are small private hangout sessions a good springboard to a successful adult phase for the services? Well …
The Alternative To The Hyper-Public Digital Life
An election season is an excellent time to see all the worst that the social media has to offer: screaming matches, dueling media clips out of context, trolling and the viral spread of incorrect information that becomes the online version of telephone.
Instagram and Snapchat — with their focus on visual media instead of words, and the temporary nature of the posts — has a very different feel, according to Manjoo.
“In the few weeks since the introduction of Stories, Instagram seems to be on the path to becoming a different kind of place — a network where you can experience the most intimate and endearing moments of your friends’ and acquaintances’ lives in an environment blessedly free of the news.”
And, so far, much less saturated with ads and private seeming, and thus immune from the sort of weird digital perfectionism that seems to dive most people’s relationship with the web. To read Twitter is to be surrounded by an infinitude of witty rejoinders, and Facebook is an opportunity to ponder why everyone else seems to spend at least two-thirds of their time on vacation or hiking.
The private setting of the video diary functions, on the other hand, open only to chosen followers, offers a different vibe.
“On Facebook, my friends will post about their promotions; on Snapchat, they tell you about their anxieties at work. On Facebook, they show off smiling photos of their perfect kids on some perfect vacation. On Snapchat, they show pictures of their kids in the midst of some disastrous tantrum, throwing food all over the floor, peeing in the tub, covered in mud and paint and food, because hey, that’s life, OK?”
Apparently Facebook and Pinterest are where people go to brag, and Snapchat and Instagram are where they go to commiserate. Though Instagram is new to that function, until very recently it was often tagged as one of the internet’s finest purveyors of digital anxiety. Some described it as the more stressful version of Facebook, a place where one competes not only to have the most photogenic life, but also take the best picture of it.
But making the photos transient and washed away after 24 hours has made it easier for users to get back to the smaller world feeling that likely first drew them to Instagram.
“As we got bigger and bigger and bigger, people got more and more followers, including people you don’t know following you,” Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom said. “Then you have brands and celebrities posting more and more awesome photos. And you start to say to yourself: ‘Can I exist in that world? Is this world right for me?’”
It certainly seems to be right for Snapchat users, given their seemingly ever-growing popularity among younger users. Will it be the tools that boost one or both products into functioning adulthood?
The Challenges Of Growing Up
One of the more interesting things to watch for those who have been around a while is the tendency of certain things to repeat themselves. And as noted by Josh Elman, a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners, those repetitions can happen sooner than one might think.
“The irony is that if you’d asked people in 2008 about Facebook, they would have said the same thing — that Facebook was the first thing that felt raw, personal and emotional rather than, ‘Here’s a link to another story about Donald Trump,’” Elman recently told The Times.
But Peter Pan has to grow up — or in Facebook’s case scale up and monetize its offering and all of those millions of people it drew to its digital safe space. And all of a sudden, Facebook isn’t quite the chill digital hangout it used to be.
Facebook became less of a place to hang out, and moved to being the internet’s town square — one which aims to allow users a variety of ways to communicate, from hyper-public to disappearing video diaries on Instagram.
And this may be where Instagram Stories has a slight edge over Snapchat, even though those disappearing video diaries are more or less a stolen idea.
Snapchat is beloved among its users, but far from profitable, and as of yet doesn’t seem to have captured a lightning in a bottle solution to monetize its user base while still providing that small, private digital safe space that draws them.
Instagram doesn’t have to necessarily make a profit by offering its safe space. Its parent company Facebook is second only to Alphabet in turning digital users into dollars. All it has do is provide one of many sub-areas for users — sharing, looking at pictures, supplying data and being inspired to commerce — to make sure they stay firmly implanted in the Facebook family of apps.
Facebook has tried to borrow from Snapchat in the past, but with limited luck. If it can do this as well, Snapchat better find a way to get profitable — and fast.