Some apps are popular because they’re useful or solve a problem. Others are popular because they’re the Kardashians of apps: they’re famous for being famous. Everyone else is using them, or because they have a big budget and “growth hackers” on staff tasked with building mind share for their company. Before you sign up, pay money or give your data away, let’s make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
Why is Slack, the team-focused chat app, so popular that it has multiple op-eds about how it’s “killing email”, when it’s really just (let’s be honest) a glorified and less-geeky form of IRC? What possibly possesses people to continue using Snapchat, even though the company doesn’t give a crap about your security, and the whole service is just glorified MMS — which is already built into your phone? What encourages app developers to keep cranking out leaky, poorly-crafted “self-destructing message” apps even though as a category, they claim to be “just for fun” but market themselves with security and privacy promises they have no intention to keep?
Well, the answer is actually simple: The tech industry has a pretty well-defined formula for success: Churn out an app, go into debt to venture capitalists eager to get in on the next big “whatever eventually sells to Yahoo or Google”, and start collecting users (and their precious data) like candy in a bucket on halloween night. Once you do all of those things, start again from the first one and repeat the process. Sounds shitty, right? Yeah — but it’s a well defined process. Here’s how it works.
Get There First, or Get Famous for Being Famous
A lot of these apps wind up becoming popular because they’re the default option. You know these ones — they came first. They really only exist because “everyone’s using them”, and not because they’re particularly novel or different than something already available. Yelp is a great example here: Yelp has more than a few problems, and if you ask people about it, they will usually tell you some variation on “yeah that company can be shady sometimes”. And yet, we all check Yelp reviews before we try a new place, anyway, because… well, who else are we going to check?
This usually happens when someone comes first in their market or because they strike the public consciousness in a way that makes people flock to them — and once that process begins, more and more people join the flock, to the point where you can’t choose another option because no one’s using the other options. Uber is a great example here. Uber has serious issues, from enough sexual assaults and incidents that a whole web page is dedicated to tracking them, to super-shady “dogpile your critics when they even so much as mention you might want to give your drivers background checks” tactics. Even so, Uber is still your best option for reliable, not extortion-level, non-shady transportation in my area at least, and I’m willing to bet it’s one of the best in yours too. Uber’s a juggernaut, too big to fail for no other reason than it’s “disruptive”, which is code for “it had a good idea and got to market first”.
Of course, popularity isn’t always bad. Popular services generally scale to keep up with the growing needs of their users. In general, where the people go is where the money, attention and development effort also goes. When users cry out for a company to fix problems, like drivers assaulting passengers in their cars, ideally the company will do something about it. If an app has instant popularity, especially if it requires others to use it to be useful (like Waze or WhatsApp, for example,) this is great news. It means that not only are the people behind the app (hopefully) paying attention to what their users need, but you’ll actually reap real benefits if you sign up.
But this is a double-edged sword. We often hear about new apps that promise to make it easier to message friends, sell your stuff, meet people or do other things that only work if people are already using the app. Every week we hear about some new “self-destructing message” app like we mentioned above. When those services are new, no one’s using them, so they’re useless. You would sign up and be the only one of your friends there, or try to sell your stuff but no one’s there to buy. Unfortunately, they will never be useful if you don’t stick around, but you have no incentive to wait or spam your friends to get them to join. You can see the catch-22.
A lot of great ideas die that way. Instead, a lot of mediocre ideas stick around in their place because they got there first, and now “everyone’s using it”. You can think of a few biggies here: Paypal and Facebook come to mind.
Use Semi-Shady Marketing to Keep Everyone Talking About You
We can think of more than a few super-popular apps that grew not because they were specifically good, but because they had a name behind them. These are the startups where “founded by X, who founded [completely other company everyone knows]” is at the top of every article about them. The ones rising to prominence on name, and on the promise that some visionary who started a company everyone knows is about to strike again with their next big, world-changing idea. The problem is that’s usually bullshit, and just a way to get eyeballs on their press releases and blog posts.
Slack, for example, is the darling of the tech world right now. It even has one of Flickr’s co-founders behind it. Is it special? Not really. It’s a solid chat app, and it’s pretty, but it isn’t as groundbreaking as it would have you believe. It’s by no means the first tool to let people talk in chat rooms dressed up with GIFs and attached files. It’s not even that different than HipChat, TeamChat, or even IRC, all of which came long before it. Sure, we use it here at Lifehacker to communicate, but its success, aside from a modern design, comes largely from making sure that it stays in the public consciousness with big, bombastic claims that it’s a “work social network” and will “kill email”. We all know that’s not true, but it won’t stop the hot takes from filling up tech blogs anyway.
Other services just manage to buy the mindshare required to make sure everyone knows its name. Flood the news with press releases, raise a ton of investment money, and do a little “content marketing” (essentially writing your own press and convincing people to run it for you.) If you’re one of the newest breed of startups, just hire some “growth hackers”, whose job it is to do big social media and mailing campaigns so everyone’s talking about you. Make tiny, iterative updates to bring in as many new users as possible. Maybe generate some controversy by talking about how you’re going to “revolutionise” something everyone uses, or how you’re “the Uber/Netflix/Facebook/Yelp of [insert category]”. That will get people on board. Of course, it also helps to give away your product for free without disclosing what it will really cost the people who use it.
A lot of these tactics are “inside baseball” to media types, but you can see the problem. This is the kind of thing that behind the scenes, industry people deal with every day when they sift through their inboxes, but at the end of the day, these services need you to sign up, and blogs need you to read, so the cycle continues. It’s bullshit, but there it is. Careful where you click.
None of this Is Inherently Bad, It’s Just Stupid
Look, idealistically no one would use an app if it didn’t provide them some benefit. We’re not just talking about “productive” apps either. There’s just as much “benefit” from an app that keeps you entertained during your free time as in one that makes sure leave home in time to make an important meeting at work. That said, you have to decide what “real benefit” means to you before you sign up or install.
This may seem like common sense, but it’s tougher than you might think. Take a look at your phone. How many apps do you have installed that you haven’t used in the past 30 days? How about ever? Do the same for your computer. Odds are you (like most of us) jump on apps and services that promise a more productive, more fulfilled life. Of course, we’ve discussed the pitfalls of that kind of thinking several times, and how it lures us into spending more time “optimising” our lives than living them. The goal of “productivity” should generally be to help you do what you have to, so you have time for what you want to do, right? Next time, before you sign up for a new service that promises to “kill email” or “revolutionise the way you communicate,” ask yourself this: “will signing up for this service/app/tool enrich my life in a positive way?”
If you can answer yes to that question, as in “yes, this is fun and helps me de-stress” or “yes, this makes my commute less boring”, or “yes, this teaches me something I’ve want to know”, then you can walk in understanding that your choice is your own and not driven by someone’s sleazy marketing or a poorly written article on some press release-regurgitating tech blog. Remembering to do this every now and again makes sure you’re directing your energy (and your all-too limited willpower) towards things that really matter, at least to you personally.