It was sometime in 2007 that I first began hearing my friends and colleagues talking a new website called ‘Facebook’. I didn’t get it. Oh, I got the basic principle – that you could post photos of yourself and share details of your latest escapades and musings with friends near and far. What I didn’t get was why you’d want to. I said to the Facebook users around me: “If you want to have a presence on the web, why not just start a website, or write a blog?”, and they looked confused and slightly baffled, as though they hadn’t thought of that.
But of course, they were right and I was wrong. What I initially failed to grasp was the social nature of Facebook and its predecessors. If you set up a Facebook profile, you are, of course, not just creating a presence on the web, you are linking yourself to everyone in your friends list, all of whom have full, real-time access to everything you post. Such distinctions seem obvious these days, now that the concept of social networking has crept into so many corners of our interconnected, internet-saturated lives. But just four years ago, they were rather less obvious – to me at least!
Back here in 2011, Twitter and Facebook have become the twin pillars of the social media landscape and it is hard to escape links and connections to either network on news media and content sharing sites across the Web.
But the Internet never stands still and over the last year or two, the field of social networking has begun to evolve away from the desktop in ways that reflect the rise of mobile computing and the exponential growth of the smartphone market. In 2009 we saw the wobbly rise of location-based social network foursquare, which takes full advantage of the GPS chip embedded in many modern smartphones. And now an even newer wave of social networking services are focused on their cameras.
Last year the world was introduced to Path, a app-centred social network based around the idea of sharing photos from your daily life with your ‘50 closest’ friends and family, in contrast to supposed sprawl of Facebook. (But does anyone out there really have 50 “close” friends and family?)
Meanwhile, Instagram, for the iPhone, is, and I quote, “a fast, beautiful and fun way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures.” It sounds like fun, but you do have to look closely to see much of a difference between it and Path.
And now comes yet another iPhone app for sharing your smartphone snaps with the world: Color, recently launched with the help of a hefty $41 million in venture capital funding. Does Color bring anything new to the photo-sharing party? Users can tag their photos with location data and browse the photos of people in their current vicinity. In other words – it’s Instagram meets foursquare.
Clearly the venture capitalists who have backed these concepts with hard cash think they have a future – and perhaps they are just months from becoming all the rage. Smartphones with embedded GPS chips and decent cameras are, after all, no longer expensive novelties confined to the well-off.
But until significant numbers of people start to use these apps and post their photos, Color et al. will struggle. I have several friends who simply cannot grasp the concept of Twitter, now second only to Facebook in mainstream appeal. How many of them use Path? Precisely none – there was little point in installing the app on my phone! I know a handful of people who occasionally dabble with foursquare, and even fewer who use Instagram.
A recent update to Path added several new Facebook sharing options. You can now tag Facebook friends featured in your Path photos, publish your Path snapshots to your Facebook wall and privately share them with – your guessed it – your Facebook friends. No doubt the developers felt that such compromises were necessary to broaden Path’s appeal, but the danger is clear. If people start to use Path as a mere add-on to Facebook, any chance it has of establishing a distinct identity will start to crumble.