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Group Love

Nov. 23rd , 2014

Facebook's recent release of a standalone Group app and its less recent Messaging app are indicators of something important in the way we use social networks.

One of my least favourite things about social media is the way in which all new platforms perpetuate the follower or friend model; one of the obvious criticisms of something like Ello is that its architecture requires us to scale our connections. It wants to replicate Twitter or Facebook. Just without the ads. 

All new apps seem to want to replicate the fundamental dynamics of Twitter or Facebook. The thing is, the longer Twitter and Facebook go unchallenged, the harder it gets to compete with a platform that embeds itself more into our lives the longer we use it. 

So, one of the reasons Ello might not last is because few people want to rebuild what they already have on other platforms. We'll happily stare at a few ads to avoid the work of starting again. 

But Facebook's unbundling of its core functions, and purchase of companies like Whatsapp, are symptoms of an interesting paradox in the pervasive social network architecture. We're unwilling to throw away the hard-won networks of Facebook and Twitter but at the same time we don't find them terribly useful. 

So, apps that allow us to message individuals and groups, or create fluid groups based on interest, are popular because they make social networks genuinely useful. And they sit uneasily alongside the disengaged, Liking and Faving sprawl of the networks' core business. Until they get unbundled. 

It's no surprise that Facebook paid what it did for Whatsapp. It works, and its backbone is as lightweight as our mobile phone numbers can be.

Real competition for Facebook and Twitter isn't going to come from platforms like Ello, who insist on attacking the parts of the business that few people care enough about to reimagine. It'll come from things even better than Whatsapp, platforms that abandon the follower/friend model altogether and focus on meaningful usability and experience.

At some point, caring about how many friends and followers we have will be the preserve of the self-obsessed and the corporate. What really matters is what we can do; how we can embrace the fluidity of the web as a living stream, and make the most of it.