This Google Trends chart provides a neat shorthand illustration of the rise and fall of five different social networks. All of these had strong lock-in effects. All of them thought that there were barriers to switching away. All thought that people would not want to abandon their history of photos, interactions, tags. But when it came to it, people just walked away from all of that accumulated history and adopted a new platform.
I've been wondering how broadly applicable this message is. How much value do ordinary people place on their email history, for example? At least half of the subscribers to my newsletter are using Gmail, and in the tech world we tend to think of such things as extremely sticky. But real people walk away from services that they're supposedly locked into with disconcerting ease. And when a corporate person (as opposed to a VC or entrepreneur) leaves a job they leave their email behind too. When I left NBC Universal at the end of 2008, I left behind my Exchange mailboxes, including, say, my 'Launching Hulu in Europe' folder. I can't really say that I need it now. It has a certain historical interest but no professional value.
Meanwhile a lot of my professional interactions are on Twitter, which are ephemeral and unsearchable even after a day or two. (There's a start-up idea in here, somewhere.)
I wrote a post on the unbundling of services recently in which I suggested that a key issue for Facebook is that the smartphone phone book and photo library are resources that any app can tap into, where a competing desktop social site had to recreate them from scratch. This, obviously, makes it easier for smartphone apps to unbundle segments of the Facebook experience - text messaging, photo sharing, games etc. It also enables new experiences, such as Snapchat. All these apps sit on top of these smartphone resources in the same way that Facebook apps sat on top of Facebook. And most people use more than one and many use three or four in parallel, both with different people and the same person.
So the underlying relationship has far more value than any record of the messages exchanged. People switch between apps and dump them and their archives on a whim, or even in a deliberate detox (it seems to me this is part of the point of Path - it's Facebook, but with only your real friends). The value is in the contact list on the smartphone - the social services and the conversations and things shared themselves are ephemeral.
LinkedIn has a similar issue. Once you've accumulated a few hundred LinkedIn connections, every time you look at the news feed you see people you have no recollection of ever meeting. They're people you met, once or twice, a few years ago, and it seemed worth connecting to them, but now they're just names. That is, many LinkedIn connections are like the business cards you find in a drawer and struggle to place. You file them away safely for another year or two, and then, the next time you find them, you shrug and throw them away, not because the information is out of date but because the relationship that's referenced is long gone. How many LinkedIn 'connections' are equally worthless? Rather like the tags and shared photos on Facebook, you care about them at a moment in time, and then, when you really think about it, you're happy to abandon them. Maybe, like Path and Facebook, there should be a LinkedIn clone that's just for the people you actually know.
Snapchat is the purest expression of this view. Any interaction, whether professional or purely social, is a conversation that fades over time if it isn't continued. After a certain point the archive of that interaction has no value (except perhaps to your company's lawyers). And the division is between the relationship itself versus the many different media though which you might contact a conversation - phone calls, SMS, coffee, Instagram, beer, twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook. And both the relationship and the messages have half-lives. An app that reminds you that you met this person has strictly limited value - if you can't remember them, are they really in your network?
Lots of companies have big user bases and big accumulations of user data. And they think that this gives them a lock-in. But maybe the only stickiness comes from the mere presence of users - more like a nightclub than a bank. If your friends move, you'll move in a second, and the dynamics of smartphones mean there are no barriers at all to moving. Owning the address book, and perhaps the photos, are the only real levers of control, and it's very hard to dislodge the underlying platform owners from that.
That of course begs the question - what is the irreducible, underlying, unchanging point of identity? Is there one? An email address? A PSTN number? A Facebook/twitter account? Or is it ultimately a personal, real-world connection?