Apple has a chance to build a social network we can trust

Forget Ping. Privacy concerns and Apple's growing services give the company a chance to offer a social network we can trust.

Apple, iOS, Facebook, iPhone, social media, ping, Apple Music+
Gerd Altmann (CC0)

Apple has never quite managed to create a social network that works, but it seems to have a better chance than ever right now.

All the ingredients are there

The company has all the ingredients: A platform, loyal customers, and a growing range of media services that would benefit from the kind of pester power social media provides.

Apple News+, Apple TV+, Apple Music (will Apple Music+ turn out to be the long-fabled high definition music service?) and even Apple Arcade.

Apple’s servers also hoard vast treasure troves of images and videos captured by iPhone users across the planet.

This is all shareable content that’s kept tightly secured inside the company’s walled garden, within which everything you do is kept as private as possible. (Subject to the privacy practices of your networks, governments, and app developers.)

The thing is, at present, these things are hard to share with the same freedom as you get when using Twitter or Facebook. Why shouldn’t Apple create a social network of its own in order to provide a safe space for sharing content?

Naysayers: Status = Nay

Apple watchers will laugh at the idea.

They will point to the failure of Apple’s Ping social service and the lack of adoption of the social features inside Apple Music. Some may harken to Apple’s forgotten eWorld service introduced in 1994.

“Apple doesn’t get social media,” they’ll say, while conveniently forgetting all the other things Apple didn’t get that it does quite well today, such as music players or mobile phones.

The thing is, Apple does get privacy.

The company also understands the need to connect its audiences together, and it seems clear it understands the damage done to public discourse by existing social media services.

“Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told a conference of European privacy commissioners in 2018. “Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated or crazy.”

Beyond words, the company’s own actions prove that it is grappling with the problems of online privacy, surveillance technologies within advertising, and agency. Just last month it teamed up with independent media literacy schemes in Europe and the U.S.

Cook has been an energetic campaigner for a bill of digital rights, and the discussion around online privacy is most certainly moving into the central public discourse.

People are becoming far more aware of the importance of privacy and the need for online responsibility.

It’s within this context that Apple has an opportunity.

A place for friends

What do you share on social media? Most people share video, images, music, articles, news reports, and personal messages within their own friendship circles.

Ad-driven social networks gather and analyze this data to build dystopian and unregulated insights into user needs – insights they then sell to advertisers in the form of targeted marketing leads.

The thing is, there are social networks that are not driven by ads revenue, such as MeWe.

What if Apple were to create its own such network?

Think how this might work:

  • Anyone could join for free with an Apple ID.
  • Apple could deliver clear and comprehensive privacy tools to users, enabling things such as time-limited posts, limited circulation within subsets of existing groups.
  • Apple could also provide useful feature, such as ways to differentiate between work and personal contacts.
  • Apple could make the settings for the service as easy as those you’ll find on iOS.

When inside the network they would be able to access Apple’s services (for a fee) and could potentially share copyright material with others for another small fee.

Perhaps we could share our favorite movies in full quality from our social pages, publish Apple Arcade gaming action clips, watch TV shows online with others and more.

All of this ad-free, without invasive cookie or data collection, without dubious and unregulated data brokers building pictures of who you are while providing you with no control over the data they secretly gather and trade in.

The service would be financed in part by existing iCloud services income, and would help shore up subscriptions to Apple’s services. It would also help maintain product sales. I see this as the non-invasive equivalent of Google’s model, only in this case you are not the product.

Given that most of Apple’s existing billion or so customers use social networks, I think the service might be quite popular.

The missing link? People must be able to publish their own content. That’s the heart of social media – and also the reason Ping failed.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

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