Over the past decade, we have seen an enthralling evolution take place. We have seen social networks bloom and collapse based on changes in culture around privacy and digital footprints.
The original incarnation of MySpace was one of the first time that people who didn’t know how to build a website could have an online presence and connect online. It was open, you would befriend strangers with similar interests and could comment on each person’s profile. It was a pretty simple site, which could be personalised with the exciting feature of unique backgrounds and images.
When Facebook launched, it had something that people didn’t know they wanted: privacy. The ability to post to a select group of people was something that we discovered we craved online – especially for the demographics which brought Facebook to it’s heights – the twentysomethings and teens who were busy finding ways to communicate outside of prying eyes of parents.
Twitter launched with an almost exclusive public focus – but due to the character count, Twitter became less of a personal diary and more about sharing articles and information – it became a public chatroom where what you said was said to be seen (with the rise of the twitter one-liner becoming core to it’s culture).
In 2014, we know a very different kind of Facebook. It’s now no longer private – and not just because of their privacy settings and data mining, but because everyone’s entire social network is connected to them. Most people are likely to have friends, family and colleagues on the site, so information about personal views/feelings/politics/that night out is no longer limited to a select few besties, but, it is, in the context of your social circle, entirely public. In fact, an average user has over 300 friends – which is double the amount of people we can actually maintain relationships with, according to Dunbar. Posting on Facebook is, essentially, posting into a public environment which not only impacts those who see the content each day, but leave a digital footprint which is pretty close to impossible to erase.
Digital footprints are with us forever – comments, blog posts, photos, stupid updates online – it is something that will haunt us. So we are noticing a trend in people looking for a new kind of privacy. The rise of niche social networks on mobile devices which limit the people who can see your content is a reflection in this.
SnapChat has the feeling of privacy that Facebook had decade ago – where teens can send information to their friends without their parents entering that space without their permission, with the additional benefit of knowing that it isn’t going to be recorded to use against them (either long term for future employers, or for what they did last Saturday night – as many an incriminating SMS would have taught a few teens).
Facebook’s epic $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp is a move to muscle in to this private messaging mobile space. It’s a safe bet that Facebook will attempt to monetise WhatsApp. After purchasing Instagram, they have rolled out ads on the network early this year – there is no reason they would not do the same thing with WhatsApp.
It’s entirely possible that if Facebook include advertising in WhatsApp, users will flock from the app. Using private conversations as a basis for advertising is the very thing people are using WhatApp to escape from, so it would put Facebook on very thin ice.
The Average Joe, however, will not pay for a social network like Facebook – freemium models are the norm.
Niche-based networks, like LinkedIn, have had more traction in that realm with both free and Pro versions. The subscription social network app.net (aka “twitter for rich nerds”), doesn’t seem to have gained traction on a large scale (but then, maybe that’s the point of a paywall, to keep out the masses.)
People might be shifting to niche and mobile platforms to grasp at privacy: but the same stresses and strains exist around how to maintain a business model. Will WhatsApp shift from being a private place to one funded by ads and user data? Probably. But is it the only way forward?