Saturday, February 22, 2014

Messaging, more real than 500 online 'friends'

Weary of noisy social networks filled with mundane updates from the most remote acquaintances, millions of people have turned to their smartphone address books - and the diverse array of messaging services that rely on them, like Snapchat, Secret, Kik and WhatsApp - for more intimate social connections. Now the stampede toward those messaging services has Silicon Valley's giants scrambling to catch up.

Being able to tap into this address-book messaging is a major reason why Facebook decided that WhatsApp, the most popular of these services, was worth as much as $19 billion. In announcing this week it would buy WhatsApp, Facebook is betting that the future of social networking will center on not just broadcasting to the masses but also the ability to quickly and efficiently communicate with your family and closest confidants - those people you care enough about to have their numbers saved on your smartphone.

Facebook has long defined the digital social network, and the average adult Facebook user has more than 300 friends. The company's strategy has mostly been about making that circle of friends even bigger, cajoling users into combining their friends, former friends, co-workers, second cousins and everyone they've ever met into a single, ballooning social network.

But the average adult has far fewer friends - perhaps just a couple in many cases, researchers say - to whom they talk regularly in their real-world social network.

"The prominence of the address book simply reflects the shift in relevance on the Internet to cater to the most universal and basic human need: communication," David Byttow, a founder of a new messaging application called Secret, said in an email. "The address book is a simple, reusable list for any application, and simplicity always wins."

Services like Instagram, Google Plus, Twitter and Facebook encourage users to share from the rooftop every life event and moment as material to be viewed and commented on. The Internet enabled that sort of broad outreach like never before, and the services continue to grow, as more than 1 billion people have signed up on Facebook alone.

Yet the popularity of private-messaging applications like WhatsApp, which has more than 450 million users, suggests that despite all the technological advances in recent decades, people still crave to communicate in small groups and often just with one person at a time.

"There's a very human need for intimate, one-to-one communications," said Susan Etlinger, an analyst with Altimeter Group, who studies social technologies.

While the original ideas behind services like Facebook and Twitter may have been to connect people, Etlinger said, they have "evolved into a news feed," one that is increasingly clogged by advertisements, brands and near-strangers, all competing to be seen and heard.

In addition, many people may be growing tired of worrying about how an image or status update will be perceived by their broader social network of employers, in-laws and ex-flames.

"Contacting someone on Facebook is the equivalent of opening up the phone book and calling someone," said Scott Feinberg, 22, a user of WhatsApp. "With WhatsApp you've given me your number and actually want me to contact you."

Facebook and other major tech companies have tried several times to roll out their own messaging applications, but they have not caught on like the products introduced by startups. 
Messenger, Facebook's flagship chat product, was originally conceived as an alternative to email but is primarily used by people on Facebook to send notes to their friends within the network.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, acknowledged those shortcomings in a call to investors and analysts after the WhatsApp announcement. He also said his interest in WhatsApp came from realizing that "it's a service for very quick and reliable real-time communication with all your contacts and small groups of people."

Some analysts took Zuckerberg's move to buy WhatsApp as a signal that Facebook was vulnerable despite its huge user base. For the most part, though, the new social networks that focus on smaller groups of people are being used in addition to services like Facebook and Twitter, not instead of them, a point Zuckerberg made on the call with investors.

"WhatsApp also complements our services and will add a lot of new value to our community," he said. 

Whether the two kinds of social networks can coexist and thrive remains to be seen. It could well be that younger Facebook users, who tend to have more friends on the service than older users, have more of a need for a separate service. But with the addition of WhatsApp, Facebook has positioned itself to be ready if the move away from its core offerings is swift.

It could turn out that the dominant messaging platform has still not emerged. David Lee, an investor who is one of the founders of the prominent Silicon Valley firm SV Angel, said that he was watching the next-generation messaging category with intense interest. But he said it was not yet clear which ones would have long-term staying power.

According to Lee, these apps take off because people can quickly import their friends. But once people get bored or distracted by the latest hot app, "it's just easier to switch and move on to the next one."

The services that stick around, he said, will be the ones that people return to every day. 

Adam Ludwin, a serial entrepreneur who is working on a new messaging application, Ether, said Facebook was future-proofing itself for a sea change in social media: In the near-term future, people's mobile numbers will be as tied to their digital identities as their Facebook, Google or Twitter accounts.

"The address book is a very unique thing that sits on the phone and isn't available to the desktop world," Ludwin said. "It allows you to build services that have the potential to grow very fast."

Chiqui Matthew, 35, who works in finance, said he preferred services like WhatsApp. "I fear all communication in the digital age is being reduced to shouting in a crowded theater," he said in an email. "Everything is absolute, declarative, exclaimed, public and generally lacking in the nuance of face-to-face conversation. I like the digital version of a 'cocktail party whisper.' An intimation meant to be intimate."

But even Matthew has not given up on Facebook completely. He made his comment after responding to a Facebook post.