I gave up Instagram for Lent. I haven’t put the app back on my phone. I haven’t posted at all since Mardi Gras, save for twice: a memorial for my mother-in-law and a birthday accolade for my wife. I’ve gone through the web client, in Firefox, in private mode, and mostly just liked and commented. I don’t take as many pictures, and the ones I do post go to the family Cocoon instance, or a Signal chat, or rarely to Flickr or Twitter.
And the thing is…I could probably cut about half my Instagram and not miss it. There are brands. Food trucks, sports teams, things other than individuals (and frankly, a lot of people who are only in my life as Vanderbilt football-adjacent). I suppose that’s part of what has made it surprisingly easy to stay away: unlike five years ago, when Instagram was the only “safe” social network, my tightly curated personal Twitter actually feels like a less annoying space now, because it is with only a couple of exceptions composed entirely of people I have met in person (or would like to someday) and I’ve been able to stop retweets into my timeline from others. And I’m using TweetBot which means a chronological timeline and no ads.
All this does is drive home how the future of social networking is the group chat. The people talking about how Apple is on the verge of turning iMessage into a social network, well, look behind you. In effect, the group chat – whether in iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp, Slack or what have you – is the private social network we all wanted, and gives up only outside discoverability. Epic accuses Apple of leaving iMessage exclusive to Apple for lock-in? Well, duh. When your business model is selling ads, you want everybody on your product. When your business model involves selling goods and services for cash on the fucking barrelhead, you want to make those goods and services attractive enough to pay for with money.
Apple could do this. Easily. You’ve got chat already in Messages. You’ve got photo storage already. You’ve got location sharing already. You’ve got GameCenter, which is sort of a social network as it is. You’ve got Clips, which provides all the filters and backgrounds of Insta or TikTok without having your data pillaged by the Chinese. You’ve got an account system and a payment structure and the accumulated commercial potential of over a decade of apps and music and media sales. And you’ve got the only aspirational brand in all of tech that is equally associated with privacy.
But there are two big problems. One is, well, social media. If you don’t want to be Facebook, you have to commit to a privacy-oriented solution without brands, without sponsored posts, without advertising and without platforming the kind of people that Zuckerberg relies on to drive engagement. Apple might not mind going into the Nazi-punching business, but the slapdash management of the App Store suggests they’re not prepared for content management at scale like this. The other is, well, not everybody has an iPhone. My cousins in Nashville are on Android – and part of that is because one of them came to the marriage from Not America. Apple may have 2/3 of the US market but it’s an Android world in personal mobility, and WhatsApp is the messaging solution of record for anyone whose country code isn’t +1. Any solution exclusive to Apple is going to have a hard cap in how big it can be – and maybe that’s for the best; not everyone needs to be big enough to foment insurrection in the United States and genocide in Myanmar. Still, there is a digital divide concern there.
And honestly, does everything need to be in the hands of one of the Big Tech monsters? Is it possible to have a broadly-acceptable social networking solution that isn’t Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Amazon-based? Foursquare was onto something, long ago, and sort of lost their way. Tumblr is still out there, having been spun off of the Verizon Oath clusterfuck and owned by WordPress with some capability for multi-media posting and an easily-mobile UI. But you have to convince everyone to use these other things. You have to make it easy to jump, and desirable to jump. And to be blunt, the only way you’re going to shake the foundations of Facebook in a speedy manner is to offer people a safe and secure alternative that comes with their phone and is built right into the OS.
Then again, if Apple launches a Facebook competitor at this moment in history, who knows what happens from a legal standpoint, Then again again, nobody likes Facebook, so it’s possible the Feds would look the other way. If Amazon could build their own tablet and App Store, if Google could build their own messaging solution parade (“Google messaging app” is the Silly Con Valley equivalent of “Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher”), if Facebook could buy Instagram and WhatsApp and then rip off every app they couldn’t buy, why shouldn’t Apple just lightly knit together the services they already offer and call it a day?
The one thing that gives me a flicker of hope for all this is that whenever Apple was showing off the new privacy controls for data sharing between apps, the sample app was something called “Pal About.” If that actually turned out to be a product…wouldn’t that be something.