Why I think Apple is Building An Ad Hoc Social Network

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Steve Jobs was a Buddhist, a religion founded on the concept of the impermanence of all things.

And everything is impermanent. Especially Apple products.

A lot of users complain about Apple’s everything-is-temporary philosophy. But I think Apple will increasingly embrace it — and even launch a social network whose main feature is the deletion of your posts. 

The Impermanence of All iThings

Apple has traditionally set itself apart from rivals in its enthusiasm for abandoning old things in favor of new ones. During the PC era, Microsoft competed by making Windows backward-compatible with everything, all the way back to DOS, while Apple simply cleaned house with major new revs of its OS — providing backward compatibility with nothing.

It has always required a Zen-like sense of detachment to be an Apple customer.

This tendency continues. The biggest complaints users and pundits leveled against Apple about the most recent announcements were that the new iMac has no optical drive and that the new iPads and iPhone use a new connector that makes your old connectors, docks and other devices no longer usable, at least without a clunky adaptor.

Apple’s response? All that stuff you invested in — the optical discs, the connectors — is yesterday’s trash. Get rid of it and start over!

Why Apple’s Wants to Delete Your Status Updates

Society exists and people can make progress in their lives in part because old deeds are forgotten.

It’s a cliche, but true nonetheless, that in career development, you often have to move out in order to move up. This concept was illustrated perfectly in a late season 5 episode the AMC show Mad Men.

A character in the show named Peggy, who is a talented and hardworking advertising copywriter, isn’t respected or taken seriously at the ad agency where she works. The reason is that she started there as a secretary and worked her way up. And no matter how good she is, her co-workers and boss still see her as an entry-level employee.

In order to make progress in her career, she needs to quit and move to a new ad agency where co-workers have no such memory.

As an old friend advises Peggy, she will always be thought of as “some secretary from Brooklyn who’s dying to help out” at her current agency, rather than the kick-ass professional she actually is.

That was the 60s. In our own time, leaving memories behind isn’t so easy. The Internet never forgets, and companies like Google make sure every single thing ever posted about you is instantly available to everyone all the time.

Young job applicants are being turned away because of pictures posted of them drunk and shirtless at high school parties. People are being judged for the opinions, behaviors and associations they no longer have. Personal growth can be invalidated because a snapshot of your entire life, from adolescence to adulthood, is available to all — not just your current self.

In short, the permanence of social interaction has become a problem that needs to be solved.

That’s why a newish iOS app called SnapChat (now also available for Android devices) has become popular with young people.

SnapChat requires you to set an expiration — measured in mere seconds — for pictures you send. Choose, say, five seconds and send. The recipient sees the picture and after five seconds it vanishes forever. Screenshot-taking is disabled when the app is running.

SnapChat has a bad reputation as a sexting and sexual harassment app for teenagers. But the concept of a social message with an expiration date has got a bright, mainstream future.

Another concept with legs is the ad hoc social network — a network that arises spontaneously, then vanishes when its no longer needed.

LobbyFriend is a social network that exists within the confines of an actual hotel. When you check into your hotel, you can become a member of the social network for that property. You interact with other people who are also guests or employees of the hotel as you might on other social networks. You get push notifications about events in or near the hotel. But when you check out of the hotel, all your interactions are erased (much like the record of which movies you watched) and the push notifications are stopped.

LoKast, Karizma, Sonar and Fast Society are examples of ad hoc temporary networks, much like LobbyFriend, but applicable to concerts, conferences and parties.

(All these examples are available in the iTunes store, or soon will be.)

These startups represent a growing social networking trend: the rise of social networks that give you the benefit of being temporary, rather than permanent.

I believe Apple is working on just such a social network — one in which your posts “expire” and which enables ad hoc, temporary private networks to emerge, thrive, and then vanish.

Three Pieces of Evidence for Apple’s Ad Hoc Social Service

Three points of evidence suggest Apple is very interested in ad hoc social networking.

The first is that Apple recently made an acqui-hire of the staff of Color Labs. The company’s app Color, was the first ad hoc social network to gain widespread notice (mostly for the privacy implications resulting from the ease with which anyone nearby could access all your old photos).

I’ve used the app, and it’s pretty amazing. You just launch the app, take a picture, and everyone else at the party running the app sees your picture, too, and vice versa.

The biggest prize in that acquisition was Bill Nguyen, who founded both Color and Lala (which Apple acquired and shut down two years ago). Nguyen and his team are experts at creating app-based, ad hoc social networks for sharing pictures, videos and music.

The second piece of evidence is an Apple patent for something called “iGroups,” which Apple has reportedly been working on for four years now, and which would enable location-based mobile social networking on a temporary basis, with an emphasis on file sharing.

And the third bit of evidence is a second Apple patent for sometime Apple calls in the patent title an “Ad hoc networking based on content and location.” It sounds a lot like iGroups, but with additional methods and approaches.

Why Apple Is Doing This

Apple is in the content business, and increasingly people discover content through social sharing. But how can Apple compete against the likes of Facebook and Google+?

The answer is by offering the benefit of ad hoc social networks and temporary posts, which have an expiration date.

While Google and Facebook are all about harvesting data and keeping it online forever, Apple can satisfy demand for privacy and consequence-free communication and social networks by promising to dissolve event-based social networks and delete messages.

Such a social service would enable “permanent” social networks with temporary transits of members — for example, you could imagine a Disneyland network lasting forever, but members coming and going as they visit the park. Every high school and college would have a permanent networks, or many networks, and members would come into the network as freshmen and leave as graduating seniors.

And you would have very short-term networks for meetings, conferences, parties, concerts and so on.

Apple’s social service would no doubt give people the opportunity to establishing lasting connections, but the default will likely be to erase connections and dissolve the networks when everyone leaves.

More importantly, Apple could achieve what Ping never could, which is to give people the means to share and socially discover music and other content, always with the added benefit of offering a path to purchase for that content.

And it all makes sense. Apple is the company that sells impermanence as a core attribute.

Just like your Apple hardware, your Apple social network interactions will be something to enjoy today. Because tomorrow, they’ll be gone.

(Picture courtesy of SnapChat)