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Timothée Richard 01.21.21

Real Friends


Driven by a need for deeper, more meaningful social bonding, young consumers are turning towards new digital communities that put the accent on authenticity and privacy.

Vital to human health and well-being, social bonding is a popular research subject among sociologists and currently being redefined in the age of digital tech and social networking.

The advent of influencer marketing and the superficial social media culture have strengthened digital natives’ desire to reduce the size of their circles of friends. Overexposed to platforms that favor long lists of friends and blur social relationships (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok), they are seeking tools to connect in a deeper, more sincere way, hence the emergence of channels dedicated to private exchanges with close friends.

According to a research article published in Royal Society Open Science, the human brain is only able to handle a limited number of friendships. According to Robin Dunbar, professor at the University of Oxford, the typical number seems to be around 150 and that includes family members. And that number does not seem to have risen, despite the digital possibilities for expanding one’s social circles on a wider geographic scale.  In fact, the professor has found that social media are being used to further strengthen ties between close friends, including those that live far away.

The Boom in Private Messaging

Serving to strengthen interpersonal ties rather than multiply digital contacts, private messaging apps reached the top of social media charts during lockdown (March to May 2020).

On March 24, the Financial Times reported that the video chat app Houseparty had 2 million downloads during the week of March 15, 2020 alone and that it ranked Number One in the Apple app store in 17 countries including the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. In France, Les Echos noted that it had climbed from being the 58th most-downloaded app on iOS on March 17, the first day of lockdown, to first place four days later.

The California-based Zoom app registered a similar boom. In the space of three months, the number of daily users increased by a factor of twenty, rising from 10 to more than 200 million people connecting each day by end March.

Well before the Covid-19 crisis, private messaging tools were already building influence with young consumers weary of presenting a sterile, glossy image of themselves.

In 2018, Instagram launched “Close Friends”, a feature highlighting private social sharing. It allowed users to create closed lists of friends to access their Stories, thus introducing private sharing for the first time to its community of one billion active users/month. A year later, Instagram launched Threads, an instant messaging app similar to Facebook’s Messenger that was billed as “a new way to message with close friends in a dedicated, private space.”

In the same vein, Snapchat kicked off its first global ad campaign, “Real Friends”, in July 2019, coinciding with the International Day of Friendship. It aimed to celebrate social bonding worldwide between real friends sharing real stories, pitching the app as being dedicated to friendship, with filters but without pretense.

Social Networking: From Macro to Micro

Demand for greater transparency has given rise to a new kind of social networking based on common identity and shared nterests.  For those weary of the hype and grandstanding encountered on social media sites, this sort of “digital salon” has come as a welcome respite.

Among these micro-influence platforms is Discord, claimed to be “the easiest way to communicate over voice, video and text”. Initially intended for gamers, it has gained popularity among many micro-communities, especially beauty fans. In France, it was employed by French schoolteachers to hold class remotely during lockdown.

Similarly, ByteDance (creator of TikTok) moved into micro social networking in May 2019 with the launch of Flipchat (“a messenger app that encourages users to form and join chat groups based around common interests”), whose real name in Chinese is Feilia.

Glossier has also consolidated its empire by introducing Slack, a social sharing feature allowing about 150 of the brand’s best customers to discuss products, talk beauty and hold IRL events.

Cover image credit: © Alex Wallbaum

Crédit image de couverture : © Alex Wallbaum

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