We are inundated with ways to share. Photos, food, news, videos, games, you name it – there are innumerable platforms for sharing content with the World Wide Web. Privacy has become an increasingly important aspect of these social networks, and applications have responded to varying degrees. Google+ Circles were arguably one of the most distinct steps toward more customized sharing, and a Facebook Lists refocus followed suit.
Not good enough, say some. The private social network may sound like an oxymoron, but it is a very real emerging trend. Path could be seen as the grandfather for this momentum. The app originally introduced itself with the idea of whittling down your friend list to a select 50 people. But some other networks that have hit the market are trying to go even smaller. FamilyLeaf is a new application to connect your relatives, Nextdoor is only for you and your neighbors. Smaller yet: applications like Pair and TheIcebreak are for couples only (the latter, to be fair, is also a curated activity guide — but there is a strong social element). That’s as small as your social network can get.
So what’s the impetus for these increasingly exclusive platforms? You can chalk part of it up to privacy fears. Social networks have gotten big, cumbersome, and laden with concerns over where your data is going and what is being done with it. Consider that fact that these sites are go-tos for employers, users have to keep strict tabs over what’s made public, what’s showing up, and who they are friends with. It’s a lot of work, admittedly.
At the same time, the question of whether a private social network needs to exist is begging to be asked. Isn’t that what phone calls or text messages or Skype chats or emails are for? The problem of private, digital communication was solved a long time ago. Social networks became a thing because we hadn’t yet found a way for mass, community-driven digital experiences. Then the Myspaces and the Friendsters came along and started that evolution, setting the stage for what we know and use today.
You could argue that the purpose of the truly private social network is to offer up all the features that public platforms do for you and your significant other. The ability to communicate via a News Feed-like function, to post and share photos and links and videos. It’s more visually rich and interesting than an email or text thread – maybe only slightly though. In fact ,most of the screenshots from Pair just look like an iMessage thread.
While all of these options come with their benefits (for instance with Pair you can log details like anniversary reminders and “touch” each other with virtual fingerprints; with TheIcebreak you get points that can be redeemed for date nights), the overwhelming emotion these platforms seem to be preying on is narcissism.
The easy culprit is to place the blame on the privacy fears that come with using sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, but those alone aren’t entirely responsible. Part of the draw is the unquenchable thirst to digitally document ourselves that social media has created. Jon Mitchell over at ReadWriteWeb recently wrote about quitting Path:
“I had my doubts about Path 2.0 when it launched. It was like a gorgeous mirror for gazing at oneself. It seemed vain and unnecessary.”
And while he became a Path convert, he eventually decided to cut his ties with the platform:
“After gazing intently at my own life for a few minutes, I snapped out of it. Just like I thought at the beginning, I mused. Path is just a pretty mirror to gaze into narcissistically. It’s a journal you let other people read. Path calls version two a ‘smart journal.’ What is smart about it, exactly? The smarts are all on Path’s side. I don’t own the data. Path is the one using ‘smart’ on it to calculate some kind of business model.Yeah, I thought. I should get out of here. And then I realized I couldn’t. Months of my life are beautifully recorded inside this app, lured out of me by my selfish lust for an audience, and I can’t get them out. Path has stolen my journal, and it won’t give it back.”
That more than anything should make you think twice before digitally collecting your most personal and private thoughts. Because they aren’t private – not if you’re using a social platform’s technology to host them. The minute you sign up for something like this and start trading inside jokes and private photos, someone and something else has that data. And these seemingly more secure networks aren’t infallible; they could suffer the same glitches that their more public competitors have. Remember when Facebook accidentally made private photo albums public? Or how Path was hoarding user data that had seemingly been deleted? Also keep in mind that anything hosting your data has an agenda; to some degree, your information may be up for grabs.
It’s all well and good to use these new exclusive applications, just don’t let yourself get too comfortable. No matter how private and personal they feel, they aren’t rewriting the rules of social networking.