Why I think Apple is Building An Ad Hoc Social Network



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)

  • technochick

    Steve Jobs was a Buddhist is your logic?????

    That has to be the biggest joke of everything you’ve ever written. And most of what you’ve written of late, like most of this site, has been a total joke.

  • LynxEvil

    Mr. Mike Elgan, Steve Jobs is a Buddhist. So is he in Hell now?

  • TylerHoj

    Steve Jobs was a Buddhist is your logic?????

    That has to be the biggest joke of everything you’ve ever written. And most of what you’ve written of late, like most of this site, has been a total joke.

    Probably better than anything you’ve ever written. I think Mike makes a strong point. Why don’t you considering contributing to the conversation, instead of critiquing everything via the stick in your ass.

  • Conor Conay Jackson

    I don’t agree with this ‘delete after a few seconds’ thing. For a very reason you list in this article. If something like an Ad Hoc social network went viral, so would the level of abuse. I think the cons deeply outweigh the pros with Ad Hoc social networking – if they’re not using it for sexting, they’ll use it for bullying.

  • Stuka_UK

    WTF is all this supposed to be about?

  • MWinNYC

    Apple has enough on its’ plate right now- supply chain problems, management upheaval, the whole Maps fiasco, inability to perfect iTunes, etc, etc. The last thing they need to be working on right now is a social network, or a music streaming service for that matter. They should leave FB and Pandora alone. There is no way that Apple can compete with either of them. P.S. Remember Ping! I’m sick of Apple’s half-assed attempts at projects they can’t even fathom the scope or complexity of.

  • aaronpaquette

    A spoiler alert re: season 5 maybe? Arg!

  • csman

    Talking about content, Apple should start by replacing the ‘Buy’ button with ‘Rent until you pass away’ for ALL iTunes content.

  • Jonathan Schultz

    Well written article… Worth my time!

  • nikster

    A lot of this makes no sense whatsoever – Apple is a company built on impermanence? Maybe that is so and maybe it isn’t but it’s pretty clear that the Author does not have a good understanding of either Apple or the concept of impermanence.

    Apple makes laptops and devices of such high quality that they last years longer than anybody else’s. I am just about to retire my nearly 4 year old MacBook Pro – never had a computer this long, and never had one that had so few problems.

    Second, impermanence is not about creating trash. It would go a bit too far to elaborate here but it is a deep truth and a concept in all religions for that reason.

    Lastly – I am fascinated by the concept of temporary social networks. I don’t think Apple will go into it, or be any good at it if they do – just look at their track record… but the idea seems like one that will stick around. It might solve Facebook’s big issue which is that people come and go in your life, and you add them to facebook for different reasons. So you end up with lots of friends that you’re not actually interested in.

  • SantaRamsey

    Love my job, since I’ve been bringing in $5600… I sit at home, music playing while I work in front of my new iMac that I got now that I’m making it online(Click on menu Home)

  • bm

    Talking about content, Apple should start by replacing the ‘Buy’ button with ‘Rent until you pass away’ for ALL iTunes content.

    iTunes music is DRM-free.

    But for apps and iBooks, you have a point. Although computer software typically has a relatively short useful lifetime. It is also easy to transfer the use of your Apple ID to a family member. Many families already share their iTunes account to begin with.

    DRM is a power struggle between content/software owners and consumers. Amazon is the largest e-book seller and it also uses DRM.

  • bm

    “while Apple simply cleaned house with major new revs of its OS — providing backward compatibility with nothing”

    Apple provided backwards compatibility for the Power PC architecture for a considerable time. Apple provides major updates for old hardware for several years. Apple hardware has a long useful lifetime.

    So the basic premise of the article is a bit flawed. Still, it is true that Apple is prepared to ditch old tech if it thinks there are better alternatives. Switching early has a cost – previously bought stuff is harder to use – but on the other hand, supposedly inferior tech gets phased out that much quicker.

    The more philosophical part of the article touches upon interesting points. The internet never forgets, and that’s a big change in our lives. Control over your own data (being able to erase things) is hard. Many parties (Google, government agencies) try to collect (and permanently store) as much personal data as possible. That’s not what people want.

  • richarddas

    @mikeelgan I think you’re getting there.

  • Reich13

    Really great! I wrote about this in my Blog. Thanks for the inspiration. Gustavo Reich

  • AppleSocialNet

    Ping has failed , Apple’s social engagement is non -existent and till they come up with something I started something myself for all those Apple fans out there. ;-)
    http://www.applesocial.net is now live.