This past March, Facebook launched a new Facebook—a lighter, slimmer version of itself —for U.S. users. Facebook Lite, which has been available overseas since 2015, is an app intended for users who have older devices (you need to have a device that runs Android 2.3 or later; it’s not available for iOS) or live in less connected areas. According to Facebook, Lite is “quick to download and uses less storage space … uses less data … loads quickly … [uploads] photos faster.” It also “works on all networks -- it is designed for 2G networks and areas with slow or unstable internet connections.”
And Facebook Lite isn’t just about performance; it also promises a simpler, cleaner experience. “Many of the classic features of Facebook are available on the app, such as sharing to a Timeline, liking photos, searching for people, and editing your profile and groups,” the Google Play description of Facebook Lite reads. It sounds a lot like what Facebook used to be, before profile-photo filters and Stories, before Facebook Watch and Fundraisers and Marketplace. Arguably, Facebook doesn’t need those things; social apps are all-encompassing everything machines that suck our data and our time with features unnecessary to their intrinsic purpose and value.
In a tech world of constant change, it can be hard to convince yourself that something simpler is better, but in this case it just might be. What if the thing that could save social apps from themselves—and user frustration—is a downgrade?
Facebook Lite is far from the only social app that’s created a simpler version of itself. Spotify is testing a lite version in Brazil, a country whose citizens consume massive amounts of mobile data and rely on social networking apps while it struggles to meet that demand due to telecoms infrastructure challenges. A few weeks ago, Instagram debuted Instagram Lite—also only for Android. “The Instagram Lite app is small, allowing you to save space on your phone and download it quickly,” the description in the Google Play store explains. While Instagram Lite does have a few more features than the Instagram of old (you can create disappearing stories), you still can’t share videos, and there’s no direct messaging or IGTV. And Messenger Lite (again, available for Android only), strips the app of features like sending money and GIFs and playing games.
While Facebook’s suite of lite apps aren’t available for iOS devices, there are a handful of third-party apps offering slimmed-down options. Friendly for Facebook combines users’ Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Messenger apps into one. Friendly for Facebook takes up 82.5 megabytes; Facebook for iOS alone takes up 494.2 megabytes. The lighter-weight version includes some obnoxious banner ads, but it also allows users to choose the display color and put their feed in chronological order by default. The Instagram display is simpler, and you can add only one photo per post. They’re certainly not fully-featured, but deleting Facebook and Instagram and opting for this slimmer (albeit slightly clunkier) version feels like an easy choice.
There is a real need for these types of apps. Smartphone ownership in the United States is rapidly climbing—77 percent of Americans now own them—and the smartphone is becoming the primary device to access the internet. A Pew report found that roughly 20 percent of American adults access the internet only from their smartphones and have no home broadband. Access to internet has leveled out in recent years, according to another Pew report. Until about 2010, home internet use climbed rapidly, but then took a dip and has slightly decreased recently. The study also found that more and more people are foregoing broadband internet entirely, relying solely on their phones and those accompanying data plans for internet access.
Part of the reason more and more users are relying on mobile networks instead of broadband is for the simple reason that the smartphone has become the device of choice. Laptops now feel clunky, and desktops are a relic used only for the most professional of purposes. For some users, lite apps may become a necessity: Despite these highly digital times, there remain large swaths of the country that exist in so-called “broadband deserts.” Some 1 million homes and businesses across the country lack access to high-speed internet. Those in metro areas likely can’t imagine being forced to drive miles to the best internet access and boosting up their phones to get a few moments of connectivity, then leaving and returning to an internet-less existence. People living with limited mobile networks can use these apps rather than stare at their fully fleshed versions, waiting for them to load features they hardly need.
The Connecting Broadband Deserts Act of 2018 was introduced at the end of January to address this problem. The goal of the bill is to amend the Communications Act of 1934 so that the Federal Communications Commission would be required to annually investigate improvements—or the lack thereof—in broadband deserts. Unfortunately, the bill, which was introduced to the House by a Chicago-area Democrat, has little chance of passing. The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2016 that called internet access a human right … but the U.S. withdrew from the council in June. The overall connected future of the country remains a question mark, which leaves companies like Facebook, for instance, to help find solutions to this problem, in part by releasing less data-hungry, smaller apps.
But beyond the geopolitical motivations for Facebook and other developers to create lighter-weight versions of their apps, there is something of a cultural shift as well. Internet addiction is the skepticism-inducing mental plague du jour, and social app developers are well aware that their trade is under the spotlight. Some of the methods being used to help—or maybe placate—users are things like Instagram’s new “all-caught-up” feature, which lets users know they’ve seen everything there is to see in their feed for the moment. Apple announced a suite of time-spent tools at WWDC this year, signaling that the operating system and hardware maker is aware it’s partially responsible for the pushback. Time-spent tools are part of the answer—but lite apps, which cap user content consumption as well as data consumption, are a more effective solution. You can’t mindlessly stream videos, the biggest data suck of all. You can’t send bloated, GIF-filled messages all day when there are already less data-hungry solutions for that (i.e. texting).
These more efficient versions of their bloated selves are a necessity for those in internet deserts, and a choice for those who want to limit their data consumption. Lite apps are a way to enable the whole world to access at least a fraction of what the full versions of apps are capable of; they essentially travel back in time to serve populations with internet connections that are incredibly dated by today’s standards. But simpler social apps just might have been better, and maybe users will find more than just answers to internet access, software bloat, and data consumption. Maybe they will even bring back some joyful to the social web. Give me the “bare-bones” apps of 2012, and also the more limited frequency with which I used to mindlessly scroll through them.