All social apps are the same now. Are we headed toward one mega-app to rule them all?
Yesterday, at HyperVocal, Marisa Kabas penned an irresistibly clickable post: "Every Social App Exists to Get You Laid."
The headline was more than a tasty piece of bait. Kabas' argument, that any app with a private chat function can be used to score, is sound.
A friend of mine who is hardly avant-garde when it comes to dating or technology, met a significant other through a mobile word game. You can learn as much about a person from his Words With Friends play as you can from a photo from five years ago and a cheesy tagline. Maybe more: Psychologists say you learn next-to-nothing about a person's datability from their online dating profile, and everything from interacting with that person.
What Kabas didn't mention was that there is also a trend moving in the other direction: Dating apps have picked up use cases that have nothing to do with getting laid. First off, there's an inherent "gaming" quality to Tinder and OK Cupid. It may not be emotionally healthy, but there are people who spend hours on these apps with very little intention of ever meeting someone in person. Then last month, Tinder, the so-called "hookup app," added a "just friends" option allowing users to place matches into platonic categories like "potential friends in DC" or "professional contacts in New York." Apparently, the "double opt-in" mechanism, wherein both users must "choose" one another to initiate contact, has benefits outside of courtship.
Just look at Twitter's Direct Messages (DM), which only allow you to send a message to people that follow you. This brings us to yesterday's big Twitter update. At our last PandoMonthly, CEO Dick Costolo expressed both his admiration for Snapchat and his desire to better emphasize private communication on Twitter. Both of these sentiments come through in Twitter's latest update, which now allows you to send photos through DM while making those messages easier to access from your timeline. Don't look now, but Twitter has "joined the backchannel wars" as Buzzfeed's John Herrman puts it, combining the photo-messaging of Snapchat with the double opt-in mechanism of Tinder.
If every app and platform is becoming a photo-sharing service, messaging service, dating service, and a game (don't tell me there's no gaming component to racking up followers and retweets) then why do we still use them all? Sure, Snapchat sets itself apart by embracing ephemerality, but it's only a matter of time before other platforms add Snapchat-esque features. Are we headed toward one mega-app we use to share messages and play games with friends and potential lovers? Both ephemerally and permanently? That can also be used to order a car and find a good restaurant?
Barring a huge acquisition (Cough, cough, Yahoo or Apple) the social landscape will continue to be fragmented. Left to our own devices, we still like to compartmentalize our contacts into different communities and contexts. For instance, I use Facebook and Snapchat for people I already know (which is why, to me, a Facebook acquisition makes more sense than a Twitter acquisition). Twitter is for people I've heard of, and maybe want to meet. Tinder is for people I've never heard of, and maybe want to meet. Meanwhile, Reddit and commenting sections under news articles are for people I probably never want to meet.
That doesn't mean I don't use each of these platforms for a wide range of functions. Or that my contacts don't move in and out of these groups from time to time.
Take dating: What do you do after a few preliminary Tinder chats show that neither of you are psychotic? Move it to text (or as Amanda Lewis calls it in her definitive guide to Tinder, "the pivot"). What happens if your first date isn't a disaster? Friend her/him on Facebook, and if you're brave, post a clever link to her/his Wall. Are you beginning to fall into the casual comfort of serious dating? When I was in a long-distance relationship, I communicated with my girlfriend over chat in an online word game almost as often as we talked on the phone. As for married folks? Just ask our editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy, who says the primary mode of communication between her and her husband is Snapchat. In a way, these are all "dating apps." We just use them at different stages of the relationship.
A lot of this is anecdotal and personal evidence, and different people use platforms in different ways. Improbably, I've even heard of people using Instagram, which has no private messaging system, to find dates. But the compartmentalization of friends, associates, and objects of desire into different groups is human nature, and has been for long before we had "apps."
With so many different forms of communication, it's convenient to categorize different groups by how we'd like to interact with them. Your boss may be on Facebook, but that doesn't mean you're going to post Tim & Eric clips to her wall (Unless you want me to, Sarah?).
Google recognized this when it launched Circles on Google Plus. Of course, nobody used Google Plus' Circles, and maybe the reason why is, people would prefer to categorize contacts on separate networks instead of on the same network, thus proving there won't be one app to rule them all. This compartmentalization into separate groups occurs organically based on the design, expectations, and makeup of the communities on different platforms. It doesn't happen by forcing people into little circles.
We're more complicated than that.
Illustration by Brad Jonas