Messaging apps are becoming more like social networks, and vice versa. We can see this trend in the features being added by the major social platforms. Facebook Messenger recently added a broadcast feature traditionally found on social networks, and Instagram has been surfacing its chat feature, Instagram Direct, throughout the product.

We generally think of messaging as private conversations between a few people and social networking as broadcasting to a feed for all friends and followers, but the lines these days are blurring. Many of the apps of the mobile generation, like Snapchat and Snow, are more hybrids than they are definitely-a-social-network or definitely-a-messaging-app.

I believe there are good reasons for this trend and that we’ll see it continue. In this post, I consider some of the shortcomings with social networks that have led to the rise of messaging apps, and then I present a few ideas for the next major social platform.

Likes

Likes are not the best way to build a relationship. If you broadcast a photo and someone likes it, that’s it. The conversation is done. Likes are a really low effort form of acknowledgement, and the resulting volume of likes leads to an interesting form of feedback, but you don’t get to know people better. They acknowledge your post, maybe you acknowledge their next post, and this cycle continues. It’s nice that you like each other.

From an engagement perspective it gets annoying to be notified about every like. They aren’t interesting enough. Raph Koster explains that “fun” is something you haven’t figured out yet. Tic-tac-toe is fun until you figure it out, and then it’s a tie game. Peekaboo is fun for babies. Once you figure out the low value of a like you start to ignore them.

Five different notifications for the same post.

Comments

Comments have a bit more runway. If someone comments on your post, you might comment back, leading to a circle of engagement that far exceeds likes. Where they fall short is in the nature of their visibility. When someone comments on your post they can’t just think about you. They also have to think about everyone else who will read it, forever. By the time they jump through this mental hoop they’ve already stripped their idea into some acceptable form of “cute”, “interesting”, or “congrats”. This is with exceptions. For example, the family member who extemporaneously comments on your profile pic to say, “How are you? What’s up Saturday?”

Instagram comments get hijacked with tagging.

Between Instagram posts being deleted when they don’t get enough likes, and comments being hijacked with tagging, it’s no wonder that real relationships are not being nurtured in likes and comments. Real relationships are in messaging apps.

Messaging

Wow, messaging is the hot new thing? You mean, like, mIRC, ICQ, or MSN messenger? Weren’t those replaced by Facebook?

Messaging was reignited by mobile, and it’s good. Messaging is quick. You don’t worry about who will see things. I chat with my closest friends and family. When I chat with an old friend we become closer. Messaging is ultimately personal.

But what about the social network? Remember Facebook removed Messenger from the main app? Doesn’t it seem that messaging and social networking are diverging?

Stories

What is it about the stories format popularized by Snapchat, and adopted by Instagram Stories and Facebook Stories that is working so well?

  • It’s easy to tap through and it’s a fullscreen format that looks awesome on mobile.
  • It contains narrative. But not the kind that you need to sit down and write. It’s the kind of narrative that just happens when you freely capture highlights from your day.
  • It disappears at some point.
  • It leads to chat. Why is this an essential aspect? How come we don’t like, or comment as we do with newsfeed content? In other words, when Instagram adopted the format, why did they also adopt “Send Message” as the primary form of reciprocation?

Chat is super sticky

The combination of the broadcast model of social networking, and the 1-to-1, or group model of messaging is the big innovation.

Stories are the spark, conversations are the fire.

We don’t have to think of “stories” as simply the slideshow format. We can think of stories as conversation starters. Without inhibition we can share what we’re up to, broadcasting publicly or to all friends. While the broadcast may be public, the only option to reciprocate is a direct reply.

Sidestory

On one hand we have billions of social networking users, and on the other hand we have billions of messaging users. The messaging apps are aggressively adding broadcast features, and the social networks are adding stories that drive users into chat.

I believe the next step is to develop a more direct connection between stories and chat. On Instagram and Snapchat, the stories live in one place and the chat lives in another. This removes context, and makes chat history rather confusing especially as stories get deleted.

On Sidestory, the chat happens privately within the story. When you update your story it updates the conversation. Users can follow along more closely, and the resulting conversations are better. People often say “I felt like I was there”.

While beta testing Sidestory we had a huge epiphany. Some users would post the same content on Facebook as on Sidestory. We loved hearing the results of that. Facebook reaches a larger audience, but on Sidestory you have more conversations. Real conversations: honest, funny, sincere, incorrect, and memorable.

On Sidestory you get to know your friends better. They ask great questions about what you’re up to. They tell you their stories. They relate to you. Ultimately, you become better friends. And isn’t that what social is about?

The gap between social networking and messaging is closing, and it’s a good thing.

If Sidestory nails it, or another startup, or Facebook, it doesn’t matter. We’ll all be better friends because of it.

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