Popular networks, but without news

Popular networks, but without news

Popular networks, but without news
This column is about escapist social networks, but let’s start with Donald Trump because he seems more or less inescapable right now.

According to the research firm mediaQuant, the Republican presidential nominee has received the equivalent of around $4.3 billion in media coverage over the last year. Almost no other person or brand even comes close; Hillary Clinton is at $2.6 billion.

But when you open Instagram or Snapchat, Trump all but disappears. While Facebook and Twitter have lately become relentlessly consumed with news, on these picture-based services Trump is barely a presence; he (and his Democratic rival) are about as forgotten as GoTrump.com, Trump’s failed travel search engine.

I was first struck by this absence this month, when Instagram unveiled Stories, a diarylike video scrapbook (which I’ll describe in more detail below) that the app appropriated from Snapchat, the picture-messaging sensation that your kid probably can’t stop using.

In the few weeks since the introduction of Stories, Instagram seems to be on the path to becoming a different kind of place — a network where you can experience the most intimate and endearing moments of your friends’ and acquaintances’ lives in an environment blessedly free of the news.

This might sound corny. But as more of our digital spaces become stuffed with news — and, perhaps more alarmingly, suffused with an anxiety to always put forward your best self — there seems to be a growing appetite for honest, unselfconscious personal sharing online. That is helping to fuel not only Instagram Stories but also Snapchat, which recently surpassed the unceasingly newsy Twitter in daily use, and Musical.ly, a 2-year-old app on which young people (mostly) make music videos.

These are among a handful of apps that are creating a charming alternative universe online — a welcome form of earnest, escapist entertainment that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, in a way that recalls an earlier epoch in carefree internet socialising.

“The irony is that if you’d asked people in 2008 about Facebook, they would have said the same thing — that Facebook was the first thing that felt raw, personal and emotional rather than, ‘Here’s a link to another story about Donald Trump,'” said Josh Elman, a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners. He has worked at Twitter and Facebook and is an investor in social apps including Musical.ly.

But as Facebook became more popular, Elman said, it started to feel less reflexively “safe.” The more people who were on it, the more you had to pause to consider who and where your message was going out to and what the countless people who’d be able to see it forever might think of you.

That stands in stark contrast to some other social apps now. Take Snapchat, whose growth has been fuelled by an insistence on authenticity. The app began in 2011 as a way to send pictures that disappear, a feature that lowered people’s inhibitions (sometimes in worrying ways) and created a mindset of pervasive, disarming goofiness.
In 2013, Snapchat created Stories, which lets you turn your disappearing pictures into a kind of journal that would be displayed on your followers’ timelines.

Stories works like this: As you go about your day, you might snap a shot of yourself eating breakfast, walking the dog, going to work, making some dumb joke in the mirror or otherwise having a grand old time. Each of these sounds banal, but because the diaries expire after a day, and because it’s video rather than text, people tend to be forthcoming about their lives — so you get a very intense, close connection with people of the sort that feels rare online.

The differences are instructive. On Facebook, my friends will post about their promotions; on Snapchat, they tell you about their anxieties at work. On Facebook,  they show off smiling photos of their perfect kids on some perfect vacation. On Snapchat, they show pictures of their kids in the midst of some disastrous tantrum, throwing food all over the floor, peeing in the tub, covered in mud and paint and food, because hey, that’s life, OK?

Kevin Systrom, one of Instagram’s founders and its chief executive, told me that his company, which Facebook purchased in 2012, had long aspired to capture every moment of people’s lives — both the showy ones and the casual, tossed-off moments in between. But the culture on Instagram, he said, was constrained by growth.

“As we got bigger and bigger and bigger, people got more and more followers, including people you don’t know following you,” Systrom said. “Then you have brands and celebrities posting more and more awesome photos. And you start to say to yourself: ‘Can I exist in that world? Is this world right for me?'”

This is why Stories has felt like a sea change for Instagram. The feature — which works exactly like Snapchat’s version, complete with a one-day disappearing trick — seems to have pushed loads of acquaintances to stop being polite and start getting real.

Though Stories is only a few weeks old, I have already learned a lot about my friends. It turns out they do not live in perfect houses — some of theirs are as messy as mine — and don’t always have perfectly combed hair. They don’t always get things done; they sometimes eat less than stellar-looking food; their kids sometimes misbehave just as much as mine.

Systrom had a similar verdict. “I feel like I get to see all these people I’ve known all these years, but now I actually get to hear from them and see what they do,” he said. “It’s not just their beautiful photos, but it’s who they are.”

Whether this lasts is another question. Instagram has 500 million users around the world, 300 million of whom use the app every day. Snapchat has 150 million daily active users. As these networks grow ever larger, even disappearing photos will be subject to anxiety — and people could well move on to other services where they feel more protected to show off their true selves.

“Give it a couple months, watch other people’s stories, and then you’re going to be like: ‘Hmm, my kid threw up, I had to clean it up, I finally got her to bed and now I’m just on the couch watching TV — I’m just not going to share that,'” said Elman at Greylock. “Because your five other friends posted pictures from some great concert at the beach, and you can’t compete.”

For now, at least, I’m enjoying watching people let their freak flag fly. In a strange way, loading up these escapist apps and watching friends and strangers act the fool feels wonderfully carefree, like a throwback to another old-fashioned pastime that has been outmoded by technology: channel-surfing on TV.

There’s a constant reality show on your phone, but an honest one, starring your friends. And Trump is nowhere to be found.

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