Apple's Hidden Social Network

Aug 3, 2023

As I cataloged our wedding photos in iCloud (there were a lot), I realized that Apple has quietly been building a decentralized social network.

Apple Photos, Messages, and Contacts have already silently replaced much of what we did on Facebook.

Tagged Photos (Social Graph). The nucleus of Facebook was tagged photo albums. There was an inherent virtuous cycle — users upload albums, people get tagged, others get notified, and connections and reposts are made through an activity feed.

While many see Instagram as the spiritual successor to photos on Facebook, iCloud (Shared) Albums hold the vast majority of our photos.

Photos has a "People" feature, which uses on-device AI to recognize and tag faces. You can assign identified people to one of your contacts and use that for faceted search.

Instead of manual tags or friending, Apple has built the social graph (on-device) simply with your photos. And we upload freely (knowing that we control the visibility of our photos and own our own data).

Shared Albums (Activity Feed). Photos can be shared via a shared album stream. Users can like, comment, and add those photos to their own libraries. These features mimic early Facebook features, with the added benefit of granular privacy per album.

Contacts (Profiles). You can set up name and photo sharing in Messages in two ways: either sharing automatically with contacts (i.e., “following” style social graph vs. bidirectional “friends”) or as one-off events.

Starting in iOS 17, this feature is expanding to show “contact posters” or a stylized card that shows up when you call or message a user.

Over time, contact cards are becoming the new profiles — shared in specific (and controlled) ways with family and friends.

Messaging. The default Messages app continues to ship social features beyond simple text messaging. It now supports (1) Payments, (2) Location Sharing, (3) Audio Messages, and (4) Reactions.

Many of these features mimic what you’d see on Facebook, Messenger, or WhatsApp. Even more, enhancements are being added in iOS 17 to bring it closer to something that works for both personal chat and business support (e.g., businesses running on WhatsApp).

Apple ID (Real Identity). Real identity is enforced via Apple ID (it must match your credit card payment information). With iCloud, the App Store, and the countless other ways you pay for services via Apple ID, using a pseudonymous identity is not practical.

Likewise, the Apple ID is deeply connected to your phone number, which stays relatively constant over time (how often do you change your personal number?).

Where does Apple’s Social Network go from here?

Apple has been reluctant to build a real competitor to Meta. Product is hard, and I don’t know if Apple has the DNA for web-scale consumer social software compared to Meta. A lot could go wrong when building social products (and for a company like Apple, you need to be careful).

But the opportunity to build a privacy-preserving social network is becoming more appealing, especially as Apple and Meta spar in a different arena (VR). If VR becomes competitive enough (as the next platform), we might see Apple turn up the heat on social (marginally, Apple could sell more iPhones with better social products, but the real prize is hurting Meta).