BeReal, LiveIn, Locket… what do these new consumer social apps have in common besides a highly-ranked position on the App Store’s Top Charts? They engage their users through a combination of push notifications and homescreen widgets, instead of forcing people to spend a long time browsing their app, scrolling feeds, or watching creator content.
The popularity of this homescreen-based form of social networking is, in part, tied to Apple’s move to launch a widgets platform for the iPhone with the release of iOS 14 in 2020. In doing so, Apple invited a new ecosystem of apps to emerge.
Initially, this began with apps that allowed users to better personalize their homescreens with widgets and custom app icons that matched their backgrounds, sending apps like Widgetsmith, Brass, Color Widgets, and others to the top of the App Store. But over time, developers realized that widgets didn’t just have to just be homescreen decorations – they could, in effect, be an active extension of their own platforms. Their widgets could serve as a tool to engage users in the most personal space on a mobile device: the prime real estate that is the phone’s homescreen.
When Locket first launched in December 2021, the idea was more of a novelty.
Developer and former Apple WWDC student scholarship winner Matt Moss thought it would be clever to use a widget to send photos to his girlfriend as they embarked on a long-distance relationship. But soon, his friends were clamoring for access to the app he had built as a simple side project.
Since then, Locket has expanded to Android this April and how now seen a total of 20 million installs to date, according to estimates from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower. But its popularity has declined a bit as newer competitors emerged. While the app is No. 9 in the Social Networking category, it’s only No. 42 Overall on the U.S. App Store.
But that’s largely because there are so many other apps now playing in this space and gaining momentum.
Another app, BeReal, had originally arrived in December 2019 – before iPhone’s widgets became broadly available. This social app encourages users to capture a photo within 2 minutes of receiving a push notification using BeReal’s camera which takes both a front-facing and selfie photo at once. The idea is to give users a way to see what their friends are up to in real-time. Before this year, BeReal had seen steady but not groundbreaking growth, achieving 1.9 million worldwide installs.
Then, in February 2022, BeReal tapped into the idea to leverage the homescreen to capture friends’ reactions to users’ posts, with the launch of a feature called “WidgetMojis.” This addition allowed BeReal to display friends’ photos in a live-updating widget on the homescreen as they reacted to users’ BeReal posts.
Over the course of 2022, BeReal’s popularity has skyrocketed. This year alone BeReal has seen another 12 million installs, Sensor Tower’s data indicates. As of the time of writing, BeReal is the No. 10 Overall app on the U.S. App Store, beating out traditional social networking and communication apps like Messenger, Snapchat, Telegram, Discord, Twitter, and Pinterest. It’s also the No. 3 app in the Social Networking category.
Another also vying for a part of this emerging market is the newer addition, LiveIn, which launched in January 2022. This homescreen social networking app comes with its own special twist. Instead of just sending selfie photos to friends’ phones, users can send videos as well. Another new feature lets users “duet” photos and videos — taking a cue from the similarly-named mashup feature found on TikTok.
In addition to photo-sharing and updated widgets, these new social apps include a photo archive so users can look back at their past photo memories. This serves not only as a way to incentivize users to launch the apps outside of photo-taking times, but also as a way to lock in users and keep them from abandoning the platform.
This sort of photo archive isn’t a new concept – it’s inspired by Facebook or Snapchat’s Memories features to achieve the same set of results but with a younger crowd.
In fact, these new social apps have taken many of the core concepts most recently popularized by Snapchat – access to close friends, private photo sharing, spontaneous and casual photo-taking, and memories – and have built their own differentiated platforms that tap into the phone’s notification system and homescreen access via widgets.
And they’re only a handful of a growing number of apps building for the phone’s homescreen via widgets.
Other top downloaded apps include Noteit Widget, which has gained 18.8 million lifetime installs per Sensor Tower data; Loveit: Live Pic & Note Widget (1.4 million installs); Widgetshare (3.1 million installs); Peek (704K installs); Widgetpal (374K installs), Snapwidget (185K installs); Rocket Widget (127K installs); Comet: Live Friends Widget (112K installs); and others.
There are even clones capitalizing on the names of popular brands like the not-so-subtly named app called “LivePic, Locket Photo Widgets” which has managed to pull in 79K installs, some of which likely came by way of misdirected App Store searches.
One thing many of these apps have in common is that they promote sharing real-life photos that don’t involve heavy editing, filters, or AR effects – features Snapchat and Instagram have become known for. This speaks to the broader shift that’s helping fuel this trend: the end of the Instagram aesthetic and the increased desire for authenticity on social media.
We already saw hints of this emerging with the launches of other social photo apps like Dispo or Poparazzi, both of which focused on uncurated photostreams – the latter, where photos were snapped and posted by the user’s friends, not themselves. Then there were the apps that aimed at photographers abandoned by Instagram like Glass, or Herd Social, which had also positioned themselves as the anti-Instagram. This broader group of photo apps promoted their defiance of Big Tech with its manufactured algorithms, the overabundance of features, and hyper-competitiveness that now sees mainstream social networks chasing TikTok-like short videos, e-commerce, creator subscriptions, virtual tipping, NFTs, and more. When it’s not trying to be an online mall, Instagram is trying to clone TikTok, for example. Snapchat is hosting creator content and now wants users to shop using AR.
Meanwhile, younger users – the key demographic that uses social apps – actually just wanted simple apps that focus on what they want social networking to be about: their friends.
It’s funny that it’s come to this. The “social graph” was once the holy grail of consumer social platforms – to know who someone was connected to in real life was perceived as valuable data. For one thing, it meant you could lock users into a walled garden they wouldn’t want to leave because their friends were all there, too. And making the graph inaccessible to competitors meant every new network had to start from scratch. But these days, mainstream social networks are more heavily focused on connecting users with creators – after all, that’s where the money is. Users can subscribe to, shop from, and virtually tip content creators. Monetizing true friendships is much more difficult.
But Big Tech’s greed left a gap in the market where they began to underserve those in search of real-world connections. That’s also led to the almost too numerous to count “friend-finding” apps, like Yubo, LMK, Wink, Hoop, Wizz, Vibe, Fam, Itsme, Lobby, Hippo, LiveMe, Swiping, and others – many of which built on top of Snapchat’s APIs until the company tightened its developer policy over child safety concerns. The trend is also impacting dating, leading to Match’s biggest-ever acquisition of Hyperconnect for $1.73 billion, which had been building “social discovery” apps that weren’t designed specifically for dating.
However, while mainstream social apps are now being held accountable regarding their user protections, homescreen social apps are flying under the radar. Parents haven’t heard of them and don’t know to monitor or restrict them. The same goes for regulators, too. Meanwhile, the apps’ privacy protections, in some cases, are weak. This is particularly concerning given that many are marketed towards kids and younger teens.
But the apps’ freewheeling nature isn’t the only reason why homescreen social networking is having its moment in the sun. There are many other factors at play here — including the use of TikTok to drive downloads and college ambassador programs to spread the word about new apps more “organically.” There’s also the continuous background noise related to social networking’s ill effects. Data scandals, high-profile leaks and whistleblowing, Congressional hearings, regulatory inquiries, and the resulting media coverage have helped fuel user demand for apps that weren’t created by today’s dominant players.
The market’s readiness for this type of networking is demonstrated by how well these “homescreen social” apps are currently doing. They’re dominating the Social Networking charts and are staking their position in the Overall Top Charts, as well. While, long-term, they could end being another flash in the pan the way location-based social networking apps were in the 2010’s, there’s a sense that some Gen Z users no longer consider these apps experimental.
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Although TikTok is certainly a viable threat in terms of capturing the valuable – and profitable – connection to creators, but users’ social graphs are still up for grabs. In fact, many among Gen Z don’t want to share their real-world relationships with TikTok, they’ve said in videos posted to the platform. They appreciate that’s TikTok a network that’s about creativity and individualized interests, not their real-world connections.
TikTok has realized this too and understands the problem this poses for its own business It even got so pushy about acquiring users’ address books that it destroyed its own Discover page in favor of a Friends page in hopes of capturing that data.
If the trend continues, it could impact other mainstream social networks as well. In their collective desire to clone TikTok and attract creators, they’ve largely ignored this new avenue to gain users and haven’t adopted the “live pics from friends” widget format, either.
With the social graph filtering to smaller, simpler homescreen social networking apps, there also now comes the potential to build a different kind of social network that could be monetized in new ways beyond ads. These apps could roll out premium features, a subscription service, direct payment, and more. Today, there’s not monetized because, for now, it still remains to be seen whether homescreen social networking apps have long-term staying power among the historically fickle younger crowd who have adopted them.
This article was originally published on TechCrunch.com. Read More on their website.