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Consumer Social Is Dead. Long Live Consumer Social.
Examining the Messy Middle of Social Connection on the Internet
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Consumer Social Is Dead. Long Live Consumer Social.
Coming up on two years ago—in January 2021—I wrote in The Evolution of Social Media about the framework I use to think through consumer social.
I tend to envision human socialization as a set of concentric circles. Ring 1 is your innermost circle—your close friends and family. Messaging apps like iMessage, WhatsApp, Messenger, Signal, and Telegram serve this segment. Ring 4, meanwhile, is about connecting with strangers; TikTok, Discord, and Reddit live here. (China’s Soul is also built for Ring 4; you can read a deep-dive into that business here.)
In between Rings 1 and 4 are your loose social connections—your friends and acquaintances. Rings 2 and 3 are where Facebook (more so) and Instagram (less so) play: chances are you know many of the people you’re connected with offline. The social networks originated as digital proxies for your “real world” connections.
That January 2021 piece predicted that social media would move in the direction of Rings 1 and 4—in some ways, a cleaving of social media into social and media. The Ring 1 platforms would be about intimate connection (more social), while the Ring 4 platforms would be about discovering content and people (more media).
Mark Zuckerberg’s two most valuable apps—the Facebook “Big Blue” app and Instagram—sit in the no-man’s-land of loose social ties in the middle. What we’ve seen is Meta be attacked from both sides, which Zuck has alluded to in earnings calls:
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, on an analysts call, also addressed Facebook’s growing competition for young adult users from Apple’s iMessage app and the rise of ByteDance’s TikTok, saying that retaining and adding members of this demographic segment is essential for the company’s long-term success.
iMessage and TikTok are near polar opposites, but both are infringing on Meta’s turf. In response, Meta has directed its apps—mainly Instagram—to expand into Rings 1 and 4. Insta is now attempting to serve Rings 1, 2, 3, and 4. Ironically, despite the huge investment into Reels (Ring 4), I would argue that Insta is most successful in its Ring 1 push: younger users, in particular, use Instagram in place of texting. Many Gen Zs rarely use iMessage, asking for someone’s IG handle rather than for their phone number. Savvy shows like Netflix’s Heartstopper show teenagers flirt and gossip over Insta DM rather than text.
Among consumer social companies, the most consistent effort over the past two years has been to compete with TikTok. Companies have good reason to do so; a piece from WashPo this week did a good job highlighting TikTok’s dominance:
TikTok’s website was visited more last year than Google (making it the #1 website in the world)
TikTok became the fastest app to grow to a billion users
Roughly 1 of 3 Americans are on the app, 2 of 3 among those under 35
The average American viewer watches TikTok for 80 minutes a day—more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram, combined (!)
TikTok moves culture. Niches like #BookTok (78 billion views) have reinvented stale categories. Music charts move with TikTok trends. Even historic cultural sites in Nepal have to instruct visitors, “It is prohibited to shoot TikTok on the premises of this world heritage site. Offenders will be liable to punishment as per Nepal government’s rules.” 😬
In an effort to keep up with TikTok, social companies are scrambling to replace networks of friends and family with algorithmic feeds of strangers. This creates an opening for new entrants in consumer social. Yes, Instagram grid posts, IG Stories, and Snap all still play a role in keeping tabs on friends and family—but there’s a shortage of products specifically built for this segment.
There are a few areas where innovation is happening or is ripe to happen—let’s look at three:
📸 Photo Sharing
First, good old photo sharing.
Since that piece, BeReal is the one that’s broken out. BeReal started catching fire in the U.S. about eight months later, in winter 2022. You can see the inflection here—
This chart is old: as of October, BeReal has been downloaded ~50 million times and now has ~25-30 million monthly active users. BeReal is now firmly part of our culture, even getting the SNL skit treatment two weeks ago. My personal favorites are the memes that imagine BeReals from the perspective of movie characters—Remy the Rat from Ratatouille inside a chef’s hat, Regina George’s mom in Mean Girls, Gatsby and the green light.
Even Donald Trump got the BeReal meme treatment:
BeReal’s challenge is turning its viral phenomenon into a viable business. There are challenges ahead. For one, the app is structurally difficult to monetize. Engagement, by design, is limited to a few minutes per day; that level of engagement doesn’t lend itself well to advertising, and it’s a tall order to expect users to pay for BeReals, even those from celebrities. In addition, BeReal is a feature innovation. Feature innovations tend to be much more replicable than network innovations. Stories was a feature innovation; Instagram took its existing network, cloned Snapchat Stories, and stalled Snap’s growth. TikTok, meanwhile, was primarily a network innovation and thus has been very difficult for Meta to replicate; Meta is rearchitecting its entire suite of apps to shift to a more open network like TikTok’s.
We’ll see if BeReal can capitalize on its momentum. One sign will be if the team innovates beyond the signature daily BeReal moment. The best consumer social companies quickly move beyond their initial hook: Snap started with disappearing photos, but expanded into a robust suite of features; Instagram started with filtered photos, but soon became much more than that. BeReal has to keep innovating.
There are other emergent players in photo sharing, coming up with creative ways to stay close to friends and family. Pager, for instance, is a social app built on the screenshots in your camera roll.
Perhaps the most forward-thinking photo-sharing company right now is Apple, which continues to innovate its Photos features to be more social and shareable.
Gaming 🤝 Social
Minecraft was founded by Markus Persson, a Swedish video game developer. Many great games are derived from mods—Counter-Strike, for instance—and Minecraft is no different. Markus was an avid gamer who happened upon a game called Infiniminer, which takes place in square, blocky worlds and lets players dig for and build with resources. Sound familiar? Within weeks, Markus had modified Infiniminer to create what would become Minecraft. In a May 2009 YouTube video from Markus, he shared the game and said, “This is a very early test of an Infiniminer clone I’m working on. It will have more resource management and materials, if I ever get around to finishing it.”
He did get around to finishing it, and the rest is history: Minecraft went on to become the best-selling game ever.
(For what it’s worth, Infinimer’s creator Zachary Barth had no hard feelings, saying: “The act of borrowing ideas is integral to the creative process. There are games that came before Infiniminer and there are games that will come after Minecraft. That’s how it works.”)
Minecraft played a pivotal role in blurring the lines between gaming and social. Minecraft gave users a blank canvas—a space to create and share those creations. Users could take Minecraft in whatever direction they chose; if they wanted to, they could spend thousands of hours constructing a painstaking digital replica of King’s Landing from Game of Thrones:
But Minecraft has its shortcomings. It was built over a decade ago and it wasn’t built for the browser, meaning that distribution is challenging. (A URL is the greatest viral mechanism ever created.) The next social network might look something like Minecraft, but with even better creation tools and more built-in virality. It might exist in the browser, and it might find new ways for people to build and interact with friends.
The startup Things is one example of innovation, building 3D digital spaces for creative expression—a sort of digital version of Legos. Things also happens to have one of the coolest logos out there:
Things wants people to design their own Rooms—spaces akin to interactive, 3D versions of Myspace pages that have much more character and personality than a Facebook profile.
I’ve long held the view that the future of consumer social will look more like Myspace or Tumblr than Instagram or Facebook (see: Myspace, Tumblr, and the Long-Lost Weirdness of the Social Internet), and companies like Things are built on a foundation of personalization and self-expression.
Successful companies building in consumer social may borrow elements from Minecraft and Roblox, Myspace and Tumblr, to assemble something wholly new and fresh that lets people build and socialize in easy-to-use, easy-to-share virtual spaces.
AI & VTubing
When you think of what sparks a new social platform, it’s often a new content format. We talked above about Snap’s disappearing messages, Instagram’s filtered photos, and BeReal’s front-and-back snapshots. What comes next? New formats like text-to-image generative AI could lead to new social platforms.
What’s groundbreaking about generative AI is how it removes friction to create. This week, I attended a USV event on AI where my friend Andy Weissman shared a Chomsky quote: “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.” AI compresses the distance between thought and expression. I like how Midjourney’s David Holz puts it:
We don’t think it’s really about art or making deepfakes, but — how do we expand the imaginative powers of the human species? And what does that mean? What does it mean when computers are better at visual imagination than 99 percent of humans? That doesn’t mean we will stop imagining. Cars are faster than humans, but that doesn’t mean we stopped walking. When we’re moving huge amounts of stuff over huge distances, we need engines, whether that’s airplanes or boats or cars. And we see this technology as an engine for the imagination. So it’s a very positive and humanistic thing.
An engine for the imagination.
Just as TikTok’s low-code editing tools or Snap’s AR filters made more people creative, AI can crowd in more creativity.
Another potential opportunity: vTubing. My friend Olivia shared this chart this week, which shows vTuber viewership on Twitch growing 500% year-over-year:
In the future, more people could be CodeMiko—without the expensive motion-capture suit or finessing of Unreal Engine. There are many people who feel more comfortable in avatar form, and prefer socializing through that medium.
Or think about combining vTubing with generative AI—being able to transform your avatar with a few words (“Turn me into Iron Man”, “Give me purple hair”) while streaming real-time in 3D. History shows that new content formats lead to new social networks—from text and Twitter, to photos and Instagram, to Stories and Snapchat, to immersive video and TikTok. New content formats like AI and vTubing look like compelling candidates for what’s next.
Consumer social seems saturated—and it is. Yet innovation is still happening, and the best products break through the noise. Just in the past week, a new app called Gas has catapulted to the top of the charts:
Gas comes from the founder of 2017’s hit app tbh (acquired by and then shut down by Facebook), and Gas seems to be resonating because it brings a playful, friendly, optimistic approach to interacting with your friends.
Though consumer social is notoriously fickle, with flash-in-the-pan apps, there is new stuff happening. And there should be: we’re at a unique moment in time, with the dominant social apps annoying their user bases with feature overload, trying to be everything to everyone. This creates an opportunity, one that new startups will seize. The question is: which of these startups can innovate fast enough to hold our attention for the long run and to build a business that stands the test of time.
Sources & Additional Reading
The Amazingly Unlikely Story of How Minecraft Was Born | Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson
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