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!
A version of this article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.