Facebook Backlash

Why we're embracing spare, single-purpose apps and why that's likely to continue.

Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, and countless other services are growing at whiplash-inducing speed. What do they have in common? Born in the post-iPhone era? Check. Delicious, addictive, time-wasting, attention-sucking quicksands? Yep. But most important: They are simple. Simple to understand, simple to use, and simple to enjoy.

The key to understanding the rise of these apps lies in something Evan Williams, cofounder of Blogger and Twitter, told me a few years ago about the natural biorhythm of our relationship with Internet services. "There is this inevitable pattern of specialization and generalization," he said, meaning that we cycle between periods in which we want all of our Internet activity consolidated and other times in which we want a bunch of elegant monotaskers. Clearly we have reentered a simplification phase.

You can see this cycle through the entire history of the commercial Internet. The original web was so sparse (but also so slow to navigate) that Yahoo was started as a guide of worthwhile sites because it wasn't easy to flit among web pages. Yahoo's directory proved popular, and sensing opportunity, the company added all sorts of new features: search, chat, email, stock tickers, sports, news, personals, e-commerce, and photos. By the late 1990s, Yahoo had become the grand aggregator, its pages as cluttered as a Canal Street stall. This created an opening for Google, with its bare-bones home page that held only a search box and company logo. With the rise of broadband, which made it easy to jump around, the web became disaggregated and brought with it focused, functional tools such as Skype and YouTube.

Fast-forward to today and replace ­Yahoo with Facebook. Facebook showed us the value of aggregating all of those small chunks of information, including photos and status updates, that we wanted to consume on the now dynamic and interactive web. That single string of updates, known as News Feed, was a brilliant product that powered the company's rise from 2006 to 2011. Then along came Instagram and its peers, born for a generation that doesn't know how to live without an always-on connection. They facilitate new online behaviors that have been invented for a world of touch and mobile. These apps were designed to be great at just one or two things. The tech world had swung back to being simple, lightweight, and fast—at precisely the same time that Facebook feeds were becoming so bloated and complicated.

Last fall, at my RoadMap conference, I pointed out to Bret Taylor, Facebook's former CTO, that rather than being social, Facebook now felt like work. The audience, also overwhelmed by baby pictures, birthday wishes, and benedictions of some kind or another, burst into applause. Taylor didn't quite agree, but he acknowledged the challenge Facebook has in trying to do everything for everyone. It can charitably be described as quixotic.

What's fascinating is that this conundrum is not unique to Facebook or the Internet. Watch designer Jerome Mage of the March LA.B recently observed, "Watch design seems focused on two extremes, one being a rather designless, minimal, and antiskeuomorphic approach inspired by the ever-powerful Apple doctrine of unmaterialism; the other one is massive mechanical expressionism rendered in the most excessive possible way. Both have the same lethal goal of appealing to the lowest common denominator of taste in order to attract the masses and sell more watches." The retail industry as a whole vacillates between complex and simple, evolving from the single-product peddler to the general store, from the opulence of the department store to the curated experience of a specialty boutique.

The Internet and its social services, like shopping, are supposed to be about more than just a transaction; they are about fun and emotional gratification. If Facebook is Bloomingdale's, then Snapchat and Instagram are the new boutiques. Expect this trend to continue for a few years—because that's what we want from the Internet. For now!

[Illustration by Karan Singh]

Add New Comment


  • People are NOSY! (I have a point here, just stay with me)

    Facebook has done some damage to marketers (the whole bait and switch concept of getting your likes up then saying, "Pay us to have your posts seen"), but not enough, as of yet, to make marketers go away.

    People want to see who is doing what, when they did it, where it happened, and why in God's name they couldn't do it too? So, they stay on Facebook, even though the changes are annoying, and leaving marketers with no choice but to bow down to the giant.

    With MySpace, we had to flip to different pages to see the full gamut of what someone was up to. On Facebook, it comes straight to us in a nice flowing feed. Facebook made it easier for us to "Stay Put" and be Nosy!

    Though Snapchat, IG, & Vine are on the rise, we still see all of those things in one nice Facebook Feed! Well, minus Snapchat.

    And Yahoo! Lordy... People still use Yahoo!? I mean, beyond needing it for Flickr (LMBO!), what else is there?

  • If history has taught us anything it's that history can teach us nothing.

    Google won't go the same way as Yahoo! and Facebook won't go the same way as MySpace. They are fundamentally different and more ingrained services, and 2014 is very different to 2007.

    Plus, it's not a zero-sum game. Multiple services can exist and be used to their full potential by a single person.

    Facebook will change, sure – but it won't necessarily go the way of Lycos.

  • Rodney Brackins

    Your idea about single purpose apps struck a chord with me just now. You know what the most significant and timeless platform filled with enduring software is? Unix. Every single command is really just an app that does just one task really well, and it's programmable through a universal interface of text, you just pipe it through the next command. This simple idea is timeless and will be around hundreds of years after we're long gone. Facebook trying to be everything to everyone will never work. Facebook has a ton of corporate momentum and is still a really big deal. Big brands are setting up to put out super bowl ads in a couple weeks where they promote their Facebook page. There are hundreds of smaller companies listed at http://www.buyfacebooklikesreviews.com where they promote companies pages. Despite Snapchat's popularity, facebook is still in a good position. But they do have significant design and business challenges.