Whatsup with Whatsapp? The Social Messaging Sphere Today and in the Future
We all heard the $19B news, and there are a lot of articles out there trying to justify why, how, if, Facebook should have made the acquisition. I am more interested in figuring out why messaging apps have proliferated in a world where we have more than enough channels to communicate: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and iMessage just to name a few. Unfortunately, there is little data to prove why exactly messaging in all its forms is important to us. All we have is a number of qualitative assessments that can lead us closer to the answer.
I will frame these assessments through a number of sub-categories/talking points:
An Insecure Facebook: Facebook has always championed the cause of a more open and connected world. However, this larger-than-life cause has a blatant caveat; Facebook wants to control this open and connected social sphere. Facebook has long been the fundamental social mantel: it contains the story of our lives from the date we were born, to the high school and college we attended, all the way to those we choose to love. That is some serious data that leads to significant inertia. But it wasn’t enough. Younger generations cared less about content and more about pictures. [CUT TO INSTAGRAM ACQUISITION.]
The Leaky Social Funnel: Over the years, Whatsapp quietly amassed 450 million people on all major platforms and it continues to do so with more than 1 million sign ups every day. The numbers don’t come close to the total number of Facebook MAUs (reportedly 1.3 Billion), but Facebook was struggling with messaging, or what I like to call, the leaky social funnel. One-off posts and links dominated Facebook messaging while the core back-and-forth of a text message persisted on applications like Whatsapp and in hybrid forms like Snapchat.
Whatsapp has never been fancy but they have a utilitarian approach to crisp design, minimal latency and reduced cost. Zuckerberg wanted to
control bring this functionality to Facebook, despite the existence of Facebook messenger. I do not know Facebook messenger’s internal numbers but I do know Whatsapp will plug the leaky funnel of core messaging data leaking out of Facebook Messenger. Perhaps the two applications will continue to exist side by side, and perhaps they will not.
Snappy Snapchat: To this day I struggle with why Snapchat became as widely used as it did. I was first introduced to the app by my teenage sister, who liked it but didn’t really know why. Not only has she grown accustomed to this new social era, she expects nothing different; Privacy was and will never be essential to her. So while Snapchat has attracted the media for privacy reasons, I don’t think its core demographic really cares if friends see each other’s pictures for more than 10 seconds. The Snapchat value proposition comes down to simple, habitual design. Snapchat made it really easy to send pictures with a click of a button and a simple caption. When there are so many other apps competing for attention, speed and usability is crucial. Snapchat was also the newer and cooler kid on the block, as Facebook became inundated with aunts, uncles, and cousins. With Snapchat’s lead, there are other forms of ‘disappearing content’ emerging with a focus on text rather than content. These include: Confide, Leo, and TigerText.
But isn’t it all a secret anyway? There is a new breed of messaging that has entered the social sphere today: anonymous content. I was first exposed to this through PostSecret: what is today a very successful nonprofit. PostSecret began by posting postcards that came in from around the US every Sunday. These cards revealed a dark secret from a stranger. I remember refreshing my browser at 11:59 pm every Saturday night to catch the newly updated content before all my friends; There was an indefinable pleasure in peering through this little window into the lives of strangers. Whisper, an app based out of Santa Monica, formalized this window peering pleasure and amassed a large group of addicted users with 2.5 billion page views/month and 40% of users creating content on the app. Secret, a new anonymous app, has taken a different approach. Secret believes we shouldn’t care about what strangers think. Likes and comments on our deepest secrets may seem comforting, but what we really seek is anonymous advice from our friends - i.e. people like us who might just have the same secrets. Secret has patented the concept ‘anonymity within context’ and they’ve done with it with a great design foundation.
So where does this leave social innovation?
I don’t envy entrepreneurs that are innovating in the social messaging space today. On one hand, you have apps like Secret proving that we want an anonymous vertical where we can ‘speak freely.’ On the other hand, you have large companies like Twitter and Instagram that prove we need labeled validation from others with our true selves in the center. We thrive on likes and retweets and want the world to know about our successes; but concurrently, we also enjoy anonymous social therapy. It comes down to the human being as a multi-dimensional user, sometimes sporadic, sometimes habitual, with no clear pain point or need like an enterprise customer. Will applications adapt to fit our changing needs or will the bigger, better social sphere prevail and tell us how to behave in the future?
It isn’t clear, but it is oh so exciting.