This is the second part of ReadWrite’s four-part series on the future of messaging.
The central paradox of the social age is this: We share at once too much and too little.
We share too much, because it’s impossible to do more than dip into the endless stream of updates from your friends, family, coworkers—everybody.
And we share too little because we have the sense of being on display when we post on Twitter and Facebook—either to a public audience or a diffuse, ill-defined set of “friends” who don’t reflect our real networks of intimacy.
The answer to that paradox has come in the form of a big, fast-growing category of mobile experiences: messaging apps.
Why Messaging Fills A Social Need
In the first part of our series on the future of messaging, we explored how messaging apps displaced texting and social networking—and why there won’t likely be one dominant messaging app.
The rise of smartphones and mobile broadband help explain why messaging apps have attracted hundreds of millions of users around the world. But those factors don’t fully explain their popularity. To understand them properly, we have to grapple with the psychology of messaging.
In the early days of social network, there was room to breathe and express yourself. When I was a freshman in college, I had 30 Facebook friends, and followed 10 people on Twitter who also followed me. Those social networks were intimate spaces for sharing private thoughts.
That has changed. Twitter is an online version of the town square—a decidedly public space. On Facebook, we feel only slightly less exposed—whatever we post goes to a large group of friends and followers, mixed in with updates and photos you see from brands and advertisers. Even our likes and favorites have become subject to scrutiny.
Before Facebook introduced its own private-messaging service, users communicated by leaving public wall posts for each other. That made sense when the service was limited just to college students. But once parents started joining Facebook, the need for more private options became clear. Teens didn’t abandon Facebook—but they shifted more of their interactions to apps like Snapchat.
Changing Your Behavior To Fit Your Online Identity
On public social networks, it’s hard to be your authentic self. We work to construct the best possible narratives of our lives to present to our friends and family.
And that means not sharing some of our more private thoughts and opinions. According to a study by researchers from the University of Michigan, the more friends a college student has on Facebook, the less they talk about controversial issues.
The researchers wrote:
Users who have a large number of Facebook friends are less likely to talk about politics and gay rights issues on Facebook despite having access to increasing human and information resources.
Because such topics tend to spark negative reactions on Facebook, people often avoid posting about them all together. With a smaller audience, our online identities are likely to be more authentic.
With a continuously increasing number of options for communication, we’ve begun to think more about what we share, where we’re sharing it and who we want to share with. On Facebook, someone might post about an accomplishment, whereas on Snapchat, they might share a selfie with some scribbled text over it with a friend describing how frustrated they felt about how long it took to achieve it. That frustration might be an evanescent emotion—which makes Snapchat, where messages are meant to disappear after they’re read, the appropriate medium.
These fractured communications may be here to stay. According to Forrester analyst Thomas Husson, author of the report “Messaging Apps: Mobile Becomes The New Face Of Social,” people will become accustomed to using a number of different apps to chat with friends.
“The social media ecosystem is somehow fragmented by nature, due to the fact that individuals have multiple identities and will switch between apps that will provide different voices,” Husson told me. “These apps are ways to manage your identities … people assume and drop personalities while allowing them to connect.”
Creating New Social Networks, Through Messages
Social networks ask us to define the people we know in groups—friends or acquaintances, followed or not. Google+ takes this to a ludicrous stream, asking us to categorize everyone we know into one or more overlapping “circles.” But messaging apps let us discard those constraining categories and form ad hoc friend groups for every occasion.
“Sometimes apps seem safer—you can have a small group and create your own boundaries, which is what these messaging apps do,” Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, said in an interview. “So people create a messaging group that is a social network, where you’ve created the boundaries, not someone else.”
Teens might be the model for this transition, thanks to youngsters who want a place to chat with friends and not parents, but it also applies to a greater number of people that want more privacy.
“There’s an increasing awareness of the need for privacy, and the need to understand privacy settings,” Rutledge said. “Not across the board and not in a totally effective way, but we’re seeing an awareness about it which makes things like Snapchat appealing in a very face-value kind of way.”
Even though your pictures don’t technically disappear from Snapchat’s servers the way the startup originally advertised, there’s comfort in the idea that the photo or video you take in the moment will disappear soon after its viewed—not stored in your timeline for eternity.
Snapchat’s disappearing messages are its distinctive feature. Other chat services have their own nuances, like Kik’s emoticon stickers, WhatsApp location sharing, or Line’s built-in games. These all contribute to the texture of the conversations they draw. What they have in common, though, is a sense that the messages aren’t part of our permanent record—they’re just part of a flow of communication.
“These [messaging] apps allow you to have a multi-sensory communication in a way that’s transitive—it isn’t too precious,” Rutledge said. “When we talk to each other, those words aren’t immortalized on paper. These apps really replicate features of face-to-face conversation.
“We want whatever is going to get the job done best. All these app developers are trying to figure out how to offer a big enough array of features so they capture the audience when they finally come to rest.”
New messaging apps are cropping up every day, but whatever service ultimately wins out is going to be where our friends are—and that’s not going to necessarily be just one place.
Just like people use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr for different purposes, different friend and interest groups will gravitate towards distinct tools that offer the best possible way of communicating.
The rise of messaging applications doesn’t mean the downfall of more public social networks. Rather, it signals a shift among Internet users who are realizing that in-jokes and baby pictures might best be delivered to a small group of friends who truly understand and welcome our true, authentic selves.
Lead image courtesy of Henry Lockyer on Flickr