clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The single-person social network is a strangely beautiful thing

New, 44 comments

Social apps are sometimes more useful without friends

I’m the kid who never learned how to play with other kids. My cousins lived in the big city, and the majority of my schoolmates were in another town, so I ended up developing single-player versions of most board games. All it took was a little bit of imagination and a healthy disregard for the social norms imposed by the default game rules. Now I’m living in the constantly connected world of social apps, and, wouldn’t you know it, I’m still coming up with single-person varieties of experiences that are supposed to be shared. And I think more people should give it a try.

The first rule of social apps is that you can never have enough friends. Let's break it.

The first rule of social networking apps is that you can never have enough connections. I once gave LinkedIn a fake name and an old email address just to read an article posted to it, and it continues to dredge up the most ancient (and fleeting) acquaintances of my life. Remember the help desk clerk from college whom you emailed exactly once? LinkedIn does, and it really wants you to network up. Twitter is the same way, with the initiation procedures for setting up its mobile app designed to get you to accidentally follow a bunch of people. And if you use Google+ with only a few friends, you’ll get an interstitial ad urging you to round up more humans.

All of this social recruitment feels exhausting, but you can work your way past it. Disable a few notifications, decline a few "but you’ll be lonely!" dialogs, and you can begin using the apps to your own purposes. Here’s the thing: social apps happen to be the most versatile and capable mobile software we have available. We take it for granted that we can post instant updates and upload images from anywhere, and that we can return to those archives from anywhere else. The first step to that combination, which we might call the Snapchat component, is indeed easy, however keeping an organized and comprehensive history of everything you’ve posted is a costly affair. Not everyone has the funds for vast server farms to host your countless image and video uploads for free. Social apps usually do.

This crystallized for me this past weekend when I set out to find a good app for keeping a food journal. I don’t want to lose weight or gain muscle, I don’t want others to judge the healthfulness of my meals or estimate my calorie intake — I just want to compile a photo archive. For my own gratification and no one else’s. That immediately disqualified pretty much every dedicated food app out there. They all try to do and track too much, and most don’t have the finances to maintain a free image archive online. Evernote Food has a piddling 60MB monthly upload limit for free accounts, meaning I’d have to either pay for a subscription or starve for half the month. Other dedicated apps degrade image quality to keep things manageable.

I’m using a social app completely antisocially and benefiting from it

And then my search led me to Path. Path puts a time stamp on every post and lets me annotate with the list of ingredients. It’s perfect for what I want to do. I only want a simple visual history and, provided I don’t let anybody in on my Path activities, it’s the cleanest and simplest way of doing it. That’s right, I’m using a social app completely antisocially and benefiting from it. I guess these are the perks of not reading the instructions.

A friendless account on Instagram, Facebook, or Google Photos (née Google+) would probably work just as well. The advantage of these established names is that I know they’ll keep my photos backed up and safe over the long term. Twitter’s another good example: just protect your tweets from external eyes and you have a cross-platform, rapid-fire note-taking app.

Businesses have long used social networks in quirky and unusual ways to project their brands to a wider audience. What I’m urging is that we, the users, start to think a little less linearly, too. The race for retweets and favorites can be addictive, but it’s not the only application for these powerful apps at our disposal. If we break a few of the implicit rules, we can fashion out our own, truly personal timelines, taking advantage of the services that more often exploit us and our pseudo-social activity. Give it a shot. Take the social out of social apps and see how much is left. You might be pleasantly surprised.