In the world of tech design, bigger seems to be better. The more people you can reach, the more you can broadcast, the more successful your app. And yet the root of the mobile phone—or the phone more generally—has always been about one-on-one conversation. It was relatively recently that we could send a blast to more than a few people at a time through apps like Twitter and Foursquare.
Which is why I was intrigued by a recent piece from Jenna Wortham in the New York Times noting what's happened now that our mobile experiences have scaled:As these media have matured and more of our colleagues, former flings, in-laws and friends have migrated to them, our use of them has changed. We've become better at choreographing ourselves and showing our best sides to the screen, capturing the most flattering angle of our faces, our homes, our evenings out, our loved ones and our trips.
Dubbing this experience "success theater," she goes on to note apps that are designed for more intimacy, like Snapchat or Facebook Poke. After years of being encouraged to gather as many followers and friends as possible, many users are swinging in the opposite direction.
Which got me thinking about two apps that have picked up steam as of late. Both of them—WhatsApp and WeChat—focus on simple sharing for small groups or individuals. You could call them, reductively, complex SMS systems, but what they allow is much broader. From sharing videos and pics to even voice memos, they make facilitate one-on-one exchanges between friends, rather than blasts and curated photos designed for public consumption. The ability to create small groups means that circles of friends can easily chat and share ideas, with all the multimedia features of a Twitter or Facebook and none of the pressure to perform.
WhatsApp seems to be more popular with my American, European and African friends, whereas WeChat, developed by China's Tencent, is clearly dominant in China, and perhaps other parts of Asia. It's not a surprise to me that they've caught on, and I suspect more and more apps like them will start popping up. If the latter decade was focused on scaling up social media and watching sites like Facebook enter the mainstream, maybe this decade is about designing for intimacy, designing for the social experiences we want to share just with a handful of friends.
An Xiao Mina is an American designer strategist and researcher who recently worked on the Gwangju Design Biennale's Un-Named Design exhibition. She focuses on the role of social media and communications technologies in building communities and empowering individuals. Find her on Twitter here.