If the last decade has been a time of digital abundance--more followers, more “friends,” more apps--2019 looks to be the year of paring down. 2018 saw the first significant decline in time spent on site for Facebook. Users are deleting the app and replacing it with tools to track screen time. But our desire to find community and connection, and to leverage technology to do so in more effective and efficient ways, hasn’t changed. As a result, the coming years will likely be a time of renewed opportunity in new forms of social systems, the kind that has been difficult to come by during the major platforms’ ascension and dominance.
This is not to say the incumbent platforms are going anywhere anytime soon. But there is likely to be a splintering significant enough to create new startup entrants with the chance to own consumer needs.
This splintering seems to be happening for two central reasons:
- Privacy and security. While events like Cambridge Analytica have drawn increased awareness to both the massive sets of data platforms like Facebook hold and the relative ease with which they can land in the wrong hands (let alone what the platforms can and likely will do with it themselves), privacy is still probably the lesser of the two core reasons for the degrading engagement. Increased privacy breaches that hit close to home for users will likely further point out that these platforms have created scale but not deep user trust--and emphasize the need to builded trusted brands to create true longevity. But, for now, its impact is probably lesser than that of reason #2.
- Users are no longer getting what they want (or as much of it.) The dominant platforms began with promises of curated communities, but have left us with crafted personas of what we want the entire world to see and a loose web of paper-thin connections. In the case of Facebook, this meant starting first with schools, then geographies, with real identities, initially verified with university addresses. But with an advertising-based model predicated on scale, success meant breadth so their purpose evolved to connecting everyone on the planet. They’ve accomplished this mission with billions of active users. However, the mandate of scale has made that initial premise of community on platforms harder to achieve. A decade plus in, this kind of broad connectivity is starting to seem more addictive but less fulfilling than many originally thought. Users are uber-in the know but feel emotionally disconnected. Lasting consumer businesses have to fulfill some set of human drivers and desires that, despite rapid innovation & technological change, basically remain the same--belonging, connection, curiosity. When they aren't being fulfilled, the products we use change, not the desires.
So what now?
The next wave of social systems will likely emphasize breadth and depth differently than the last--and may not look much like social networks at all. With the current networks, the horizontal nature of the platform is the product. Users come for the community. But it may be that with the next, the community is what keeps users long term engaged but is formed around another intent. Come for an action, stay for the community.
These platforms are likely to have four core things in common:
- Users share a common interest or objective (beyond connectivity.) Gaming is the vertical furthest ahead on these kind of new social systems and platforms like Twitch and Discord, in addition to certain games themselves like Fortnite, serve as great examples. Users come to watch a game, but stay to keep debating and discussing with a community of other gamers. Other verticals are earlier but show the same behavior. ShopShops* users sign on to watch livestreams of hosts shopping in retail stores and markets around the world, and to buy in real time. But, while they do, they wind up messaging with each other--responding to questions, sharing thoughts on the items, even splitting purchases (once a shopper only wanted one earring in a pair and another on the livestream happily took the other.) They come back as much to re-engage with the community as they do to find what they want to buy next.
- Users have skin in the game--they’ve in some way transacted or are on path to transact. This definition of transaction is broad--they purchase something, subscribe to something, or actionably engage with the brand before entering this group. This creates a deeper level of buy-in and, in effect, creates a “closed” community. There’s a lot of this behavior currently going on across platforms with the community building on Facebook and the transacting happening elsewhere. Duolingo’s* users connect in Facebook groups organized by the specific language they are learning to get extra practice, ask for help around tricky language rules, and share jokes. Embark, which sells an at home DNA test for dogs, has thousands of customers aggregating on Facebook to post photos and guess the outcomes of pending results. Owners with similar breeds connect with excitement, sharing tips. Increasingly, this community piece will be built into the platforms themselves rather than existing externally.
- Users in the best communities go through a transition from the specific to the broad. While users may join the network with a particular question or straight from a purchase, the best ones will expand the scope of the applicable quickly once the common ground has been developed. Dia & Co’s* most passionate customers, for example, aggregate in a group where they share best finds from their wardrobes but also ask for career advice and even plan vacations with women they only know through a mutual love of Dia. Glossier has the Into the Gloss community where passionate beauty enthusiasts come--first to talk about their favorite products (Glossier and otherwise), but then to go back and forth on travel tips and best self care post pregnancy.
- Multimodal business models--the best of these new networks will, over time, develop multimodal models that both take into account aggregated audiences as well as the services and products uniting them. Connie Chan at a16z wrote a great post on what we can learn from China about what some of these might look like. For the best ones, a multifaceted model that aligns business and customer combined with a platform that promotes transparency and depth of interaction will create a new level of defensiblity and stickiness.
If you are working on a business involving this new evolution of community, I’d love to learn more.
*ShopShops, Duolingo & Dia & Co are all USV portfolio companies