Why Social Networks Are Crazy for Private Messaging

/// Why Social Networks Are Crazy for Private Messaging

December 30, 2013  |  Blog

Private messaging has captured the attention of the most popular public social networks in the last two months and, surprisingly, this push among tech companies may have a very non-technical driving force.

The feature that adds a little privacy to social platforms that thrive on openness has been a point of emphasis since October for Twitter, Facebook, and most notably Instagram. Other private messaging services like WhatsApp, Kik, and even Snapchat have been busy as well, sending a clear message of their own: Private interactions are necessary, even in a world where public sharing dominates.

Social relationships have arguably long been impacted by Dunbar’s Number, which claims that humans are only capable of having up to 150 meaningful social relationships at one time. It’s inevitable then, that when users collect hundreds, if not thousands of friends or followers on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, a need for more intimacy would result.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the science director at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. A neuroscientist, Simon-Thomas has spent years studying human emotions and social interactions, and even does consulting work for Facebook, helping to study how users react to content in News Feed.

Simon-Thomas does not believe that Dunbar’s Number serves as gospel when it comes to connecting on social networks. The 150-friend limit doesn’t necessarily apply when it comes to social media connections, she says, but Simon-Thomas does think that this rise in private messaging has to do with a need for more intimate collaborations and groups, which isn’t the way many social networks operate in their most basic form.

“Obviously, the majority of people have more friends than [150] on Facebook,” she explains. “You just have to imaging if every time you said something, instead of it being said to the people who are close to you in physical space, it was broadcast to a three block radius. [Think] how much harder it would be for you to have community.”

Nirav Tolia, the CEO of Nextdoor which provides a more intimate social network that limits communities by neighborhood, likens the phenomenon to a party. Each party has the perfect size depending on its purpose. You can’t expect 100 people to attend an intimate dinner party, and a group of 10 won’t do the trick for a holiday block party in your neighborhood.

There’s a threshold for every gathering, and once that threshold is crossed, it forces guests to break off into smaller groups, he explains. On social media, this “party size” has to do with whether a user is broadcasting something to a large audience, or narrowcasting to a smaller group.

“There’s this very common thing that happens in the world when you go from narrowcast to broadcast — you want to break things up in to smaller pieces,” he explains, pointing out that Nextdoor limits the size of each neighborhood on its platform.

“There’s great utility to broadcasting, but that utility can go down if your friend list or follower list exceeds a certain size.”

It’s this inherent need for intimacy, among other factors like the popularity of mobile devices, that may shed some light onto why private messaging has become so popular.

Just two days before Instagram Direct launched in early December, Twitter updated its messaging feature to enable users to privately send pictures. Facebook completely redesigned its standalone messaging app, Messenger, at the end of October. Another free messaging app called WhatsApp announced last week that the company has 400 million active users, more than 150 million more than Twitter.

In Instagram’s case, the need for private messaging was clearly prevalent. The phrase “Kik me” — or rather, #kikme — is an invitation to chat, and a popular one for Instagram users. (A simple search for #kikme reveals nearly 11 million photos on the site contain the hashtag, but beware: some contain graphic images.)

The problem for Instagram is that Kik is a separate messaging service, meaning #kikme users are meeting via Instagram, and moving their conversations elsewhere. That indicates that Instagram wasn’t providing the privacy users needed — perhaps Instagram Direct will change that.

Simply having a private messaging feature does not ensure success. Facebook and Twitter have offered private messaging for years, yet users still found a need for other services in order to communicate, particularly on mobile.

Path, however, a social network that limits users to 150 friends (there’s Dunbar’s Number again), has only 20 million registered users after three years in existence, meaning the active user total is most likely lower than that.

It’s unclear which messaging services will pull ahead, or whether there is room for all of them to survive. With so many messaging options, it’s possible that some standalone apps could be left behind if mobile users bring more of their conversations to Twitter or Instagram instead.

It is clear, however, that users want privacy, and as social networks continue to grow, the need for intimate groups and settings will grow along with them.

“People are demanding that social media [platforms] support communication that matches their real life experience,” says Simon-Thomas. “They don’t want it to feel like email. They don’t want it to feel like something that’s loaded with a lot of other expectations.”

At least for now, messaging seems to be doing the trick.

Link: Why Social Networks Are Crazy for Private Messaging

Mashable – Kurt Wagner

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