When a Medium Is Literally Messages, Research Time, 20/06/2016

Regarding the title: Look, I couldn’t help myself. Okay? And I’m sorry. Not sorry enough to come up with a better title, but I’m still a little sorry.

I'm still a communications professional, on top of everything else I do at the blog, even the more esoteric stuff like all the philosophical talk. At the end of the day, I feel like communications is an intellectual pursuit that I do for money. And so I’ll periodically read some of the blog posts and open source research of the latest figures in the field.

I think I bring an original angle to this world, especially when it comes to asking critical questions. One of my main principles, as someone who’s been trained in the practice and science of business communications, is not to automatically believe the hype about any new trend in the industry. 

Honigman mainly explored the development of chatbots
for marketing on messaging apps like WhatsApp. My
own critique is a skepticism that anyone will want to
talk to any chatbot. Not because it's a chatbot, but
because they know a chatbot will only want to sell
them shit. And we don't always want to have somebody
trying to sell us shit.
That means looking for ways that hot new trends could fizzle out, corrupt themselves, or otherwise go wrong. One of the marketers who I’ve interacted with before on social media, Brian Honigman, wrote an interesting post a couple of weeks ago that I’ve been thinking about since. Now I’m finally able to get my thoughts down in my own online space.

Here's the short version of Honigman's idea, at least the idea that I want to discuss here. He talks about the future of messaging apps as online social spaces. He thinks they’ll be a very significant future, and so do I. But I want to go beyond what he writes because I see a bit of a problem developing in messaging app social space.

There’s a key comparison behind his argument for what will make a messaging app into the primary social space for a worldwide community. Smartphones. In particular, what made a particular line of smartphones grow a massive community of its own. 

A smartphone doesn’t catch on to a dominant market segment through technical superiority. The iPhone, in his comparison, caught on because of the enormous and diverse ecology of apps for the device. Users had a huge garden of apps to choose from, so they could customize their smartphones to their needs and take part in the global communities of app users.

The same, he says, will be true for messaging apps. WeChat is the Chinese messaging app that is innovating in facilitating its own garden of independently grown apps, specially for use within WeChat itself. That garden of apps within the app transforms a simple messaging app into a platform.

Did I say the word ‘app’ enough in that last sentence? I hope so.

But when an app becomes a platform, it transforms into a whole other order of online spaces. It’s no longer something you use, but is a place where you exist and explore. 

And am I the only one who finds these WeChat logos to
be incredibly creepy? I think it's those eyes, and the
fact that there are only eyes.
The problem I see, if it comes to pass, will be rooted in the limits on our time. I feel my own voice creaking with age when I say it, but I see the creation of more online platforms as contributing to the fragmentation of our online society. 

There are only so many people, and each person only has so much time. So everyone will either end up on very few platforms, or so many platforms that few, if any, will be reliable.

People rarely use redundant apps – if someone uses Snapchat for video messaging, they usually won’t use one or two additional video messaging apps. So one app or platform easily becomes dominant, since maintaining your social networks as a person means getting on all the same platforms.

Online communities are in something of a bind. They’re stronger when we’re all there together, literally all of us. A community that’s too small can’t sustain itself. But a community that becomes massively large gains too much power over its users. 

Think of how Facebook controls so many people’s online experiences. Usually it steps back from decisions that the community considers too dictatorial. But that’s ultimately a matter of discretion. If one single messaging app ever captures a similar proportion of the world’s internet users, it will face the same problems of a practical monopoly.

Now let’s make another analogy to explore my idea. Honigman analogized from messaging apps to smartphones to explain the importance of app stores in building a community of users big enough to become a dominant player. My analogy, from messaging apps to social media networks, is more clear. Both would have practically the same function.

We often talk about Facebook as a monopoly on social networks. Yet when we look at the globe, we can see more fragmentation than a true monopoly. Facebook is certainly dominant, but Twitter and LinkedIn remain a close runners-up in popular use throughout the world. 

VKontakte feels like an alien world to me. As a
communications professional, I'm obligated to have
some passing familiarity, at least, with all the major
social networks. Yet the more I learn about this Russian
wilderness, the more intimidated I become.
And national boundaries – along with the powers of states to control online accessibility and spaces – matter immensely. China and Russia are the major examples, with QZone and Weibo dominating Chinese online space, and VKontakte achieving primacy in Russia.

The whole reason WeChat is developing such a complex and diverse internal app ecology is rooted in escaping the limitations of the conventional social networks that dominate China. I think one of the major reasons behind the social insularity of Russian popular culture is that so many people’s online presence is isolated behind Russian borders thanks to VKontakte.

That geographic and political fragmentation of communities even results in different risks. For example, because VKontakte doesn’t police its groups with the same zeal as Facebook, online ISIS support communities can thrive in Russia and Eastern Europe much longer than on the American (and European, African, Latin, and Southeast Asian) platform.

So how will the chat apps live once they too become self-sustaining community ecologies themselves? If national boundaries continue to have the force they do, then the global fragmentation of the online public will continue. But if they don’t, we risk the dangers of a total monopoly of an entire online public space.

The most important political question of any new massively-lived online platform: Who controls that monopolized space?


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