App sprawl is becoming a thing. This evening I opened Foursquare to check into a great new local restaurant I went to, hit the big, honking check it button, and was told to download Swarm. It wasn't an ad. It wasn't something I could dismiss or get around and go on about my check-in business. It was an eviction notice telling me my check-ins within the Foursquare app proper were no longer welcome. I'm sure it's been like that for a while. I almost exclusively use Foursquare when I travel and I haven't traveled since June. Rather than download Swarm, however, I deleted Foursquare. So, now that Facebook is evicting instant message, will that be next?
It used to be that you went to a social app and everything you could possibly want to do on the network was made available to you. Facebook the app let you use Facebook the service. It was just that simple. Then Facebook began making dedicated apps. Facebook Messenger. Facebook Camera. It was almost like they were seeding all the apps they needed to make for their secret phone project before they announced it... But the phone hasn't materialized. Instead, Facebook Poke and Facebook Slingshot followed, two of the most ill-considered apps to ever see release from a major modern tech company.
Foursquare copied the strategy with Swarm, and Instagram did like its new parent with Bolt. (Twitter gets a pass on Vine since they bought it as an app-in-progress.)
It's attention hoarding. Like a commercial cleaning product desperate for shelf space at the grocery store, these are services desperate for space on the Home screen. One product, one shelf or slot. A dozen products, a dozen shelves or slots.
Yet product sprawl makes shelves in groceries more difficult to navigate. Do I want mint, spearmint, peppermint, complete, total, whitening, mint complete whitening, white total spearminting? Gah. Just give me a tube!
Likewise, Instead of knowing I go to the Facebook or Foursquare or Instagram app to use Facebook or Foursquare or Instagram, my cognitive load is now increased by having to remember and find which app to go to for which context I want to use.
Foursquare was a check in app for me. It helped invent check-ins, after all. So, if it's no longer useful for check-ins, I no longer have a use for it. Sure, it's got discovery and recommendation aspects as well, and good ones, but those don't interest me much. Hence, deleted.
Will Facebook now suffer the same fate? Bereft of messaging will my Home screen soon be bereft of Facebook.app? Probably not. I don't really use Facebook as a messaging service. I use iMessage and Twitter. Sure, I get Facebook messages sometimes, and it's convenient to have them in the main Facebook app (though Chatheads continue to annoy), but with notifications I can just tap and go right into Messenger without thinking about it anyway.
I do think it's hostile to evict functionality from an app, however. I think people who use Facebook Messenger a lot have a legitimate cause for grievance.
Focus is fine. Dedication is fine. But scattering functionality across a bevy of apps isn't necessarily either of those things. It smacks of sprawl, which is neither focused nor dedicated. It's attention hoarding. It's avarice. And as a strategy it may backfire.
Maintaining the same functionality across two apps, so those who want dedicated can have it but those who want integrated don't lose it might cost more in terms of resources, but we're talking about some of the biggest and richest companies in tech here. If anyone can afford to take a hit to avoid hostility, it's the Facebooks and Foursquares of the social world.
If you use Facebook or Foursquare or Instagram, let me know — do you like the new splinter apps or do you prefer all your social services glommed together in the same place?
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