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The Town Square: Entering the Decade of Community
What I love about technology is that it connects people and ideas.
I’ve been reflecting on this while watching Visible, a miniseries about how television changed perceptions of the queer community. You heard that right: a show about how media influenced culture? And it’s about LGBTQ+ people? Even the most sophisticated AI would struggle to better tailor a show to me.
Visible does a good job breaking down how the most pervasive pre-internet technology—television—connected people and ideas. TV footage of AIDs patients in the late ’80s led to public outcries, prompting the U.S. government to invest $1 billion into AIDs research. Studies tied Will & Grace directly to the legalization of same-sex marriage. And most importantly, TV showed millions of queer people that they weren’t alone—that there was a vibrant and welcoming community waiting for them.
What the internet did was take this same concept of connection and magnify it to the nth degree. Suddenly, anybody—as long as they had an internet connection—could connect with anyone else in the world.
TV painted in broad strokes: the public was still subjected to content that passed through media gatekeepers. The internet came along and obfuscated gatekeepers, directly connecting users with new people and with new ideas.
While this was transformative for everyone, it was most transformative for members of niche communities like the LGBTQ+ community. A side-by-side of online dating shows this clearly:
In Impact Investing and Venture Capital, I used the example of a Chinese gay dating app called Blued to argue that we need a broader definition of “social impact”. When Blued went public this past summer, its founder, Baoli Ma, was unusually personal in the company’s SEC filing:
I was laden with agonizing loneliness, helplessness, and fear of the future during my adolescence. I used to think that I was the only person in the world attracted to people of the same gender and that I was sick and needed treatment. That was why, when I found out on the Internet that there were other people like me, and that homosexuality was not an illness or disorder, I felt a tremendous sense of relief and excitement. After all, I’m not alone in this world. After all, we are not sick. After all, love is gender blind.
To me, herein lies the power of the Internet—it empowers us to elevate ourselves, and to bring warmth to others across all corners of the world living in loneliness, helplessness and fear because of their sexual orientation.
A few years ago, I started an organization called Worthy that connects LGBTQ+ mentees with mentors for guidance and support. We wouldn’t have been able to grow Worthy without social media. Here’s a letter that one of our mentees, Rob, wrote to his mentor, Jacob:
Baoli Ma’s words and Rob’s letter both get to the heart of why I love the internet: it connects people. And while the internet has connected people for a quarter-century, I’ve been noticing a growing emphasis on community. The internet is moving from consumption to interaction; internet users are moving from passive to active.
The reshaping of online communities may be the defining shift of the decade. To break it down, I’m going to look at five characteristics of internet community:
Global and AI-Powered,
Niche and Engaged,
1️⃣ Global and AI-Powered
My partner Sarah said to me last week, “We used to have to rely on our social graphs as a proxy for our interests. Now AI can do a better job.”
Communities are becoming stronger because technology is doing a better job directing us to people with shared identities and shared interests. On Facebook, we needed our real-world friend graphs to form the foundation for our feeds. TikTok doesn’t need to know our friends; its algorithm quickly hones in on what content and which creators will most appeal to us.
Clubhouse’s suggested conversations are in their early innings, but they have similar potential: the app should be able to use AI to tell me which rooms I should join.
In The Evolution of Social Media, I wrote how about how I envision social media as a set of concentric circles:
Rings 2 and 3 are about status; Rings 1 and 4 are about community.
While Ring 1 platforms like WhatsApp and iMessage will benefit from our desire for intimate connections, the Ring 4 platforms are most interesting. These are the platforms that connect us with strangers and that create communities around us that we didn’t even know we wanted to be a part of. TikTok and Clubhouse are early iterations, and as AI improves, so will the communities it forges for us.
2️⃣ Niche and Engaged
If the internet does one thing well, it’s niche. Even the most obscure topics have surprisingly large and engaged online followings. I like to point to Discord’s 6.7 million servers and Reddit’s 1.2 million subreddits.
(One timely example: Reddit’s subreddit /SuperbOwl, an annual Super Bowl tradition. During the game, 363,000 members congregate to discuss—you guessed it—superb owls. You can’t make this stuff up.)
Communities can ensure they stay niche and engaged by creating friction to join. There’s a Chinese company called Bilibili that’s essentially a combination of YouTube, Netflix, Twitch, and Reddit. Bilibili lets users form communities around any interest—movies, TV shows, video games, and so on. Lillian Li has an excellent analysis here.
Access to Bilibili communities is difficult to achieve. Users need to pass a 100-question multiple choice test within 60 minutes. One sample question from the Game of Thrones quiz: “Which of the following is not part of the Faith of Seven?” I’ve seen all eight seasons, and I’ve never even heard of the Faith of Seven 🤷♂️
This high barrier to entry results in excellent retention. Bilibili’s ~85% 12-month retention is meaningfully higher than Netflix’s (65%), Hulu’s (50%), or YouTube TV’s (45%).
Bilibili’s defining feature is “bullet commentary”: users can time-stamp comments or emoji reactions on videos. Community members who might be thousands of miles apart can engage with content like they’re experiencing it together in real-time.
It turns out that people like to be part of exclusive and engaged online communities: Bilibili has a $49 billion market cap, up from $15 billion in August.
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If you break the population into three broad slices—kids, adults, and seniors—the first generation of the internet primarily served the middle slice. But over time, internet use has broadened. More than half of kids under 11 and more than 70% of Baby Boomers now own a smartphone.
COVID accelerated digital adoption among the youngest and oldest demographics: kids spent more time online for both school and entertainment, and seniors were forced to become more internet-savvy to stay connected while quarantined at home.
Zigazoo (Seed) is a short-form video platform for young kids. It’s sort of like “TikTok for kids” with a stronger education bent and with a social graph. Friends can share videos that they make around learning challenges, helping them stay connected online during COVID.
Flox (Pre-Seed) lets friend groups find other friend groups to hang out with. In a way, it’s a little like a dating app that you go on with your group of friends. Flox is about building deeper connections and meeting new people. Young adults will likely be early adopters of Flox, which is still in beta, but it will expand to all ages over time.
GetSetUp (Series A) is a learning-based social network for older adults. Adults can take classes around their interests—say, yoga or photography—and forge friendships with like-minded peers.
Zigazoo, Flox, and GetSetUp are examples of how startups are helping people of all ages find community.
Every major sector is becoming more community-centric. Take finance, healthcare, and education:
Finance: Finance has traditionally been a solo pursuit. And investing with Robinhood or E*TRADE remains relatively solitary. But new companies are making investing more social. CommonStock (Seed) operates a group chat that lets people share investment knowledge and ideas. Public.com (Series C) bills itself as “the investment social network” with the tagline “make the stock market social”. In a way, both bring the community of r/WallStreetBets in-house.
Education: MOOCs—massive open online courses—were the first iteration of online education. What MOOCs got wrong was removing camaraderie from education: learners were left on their own, staring at their screens. As a result, course completion rates for companies like Coursera, Udacity, and Udemy were dismal—often as low as 5%. The next wave of online education emphasizes community. For kids, this could mean taking an Outschool (Series B) class. For adults, this could mean taking a cohort-based Strive (Seed) course at work or a cohort-based Didactic (Seed) course at home.
Healthcare: Healthcare is a deeply personal and emotional sector, making it a natural fit for community building. Real (Seed) is an example within mental health: Step 4 of Real’s mental health journey is “Find Community”, described as “Connect with other members who know just how you feel, hearing from them at live events and check-ins.” Specific communities are also getting their own dedicated healthcare providers: Folx Health (Series A) serves the LGBTQ+ community and Spora Health (Seed) serves the black community.
Creators and companies need a new suite of tools to manage their communities, and a robust ecosystem is emerging:
And enterprises can use Commsor (Series A)—which made the market map above—as a “community operating system”. The existence of Commsor speaks to how the rise of communities is as much an enterprise trend as a consumer trend. Companies like Notion, Airtable, and Figma all have rabid customer bases that turn to company-run forums and marketplaces to interact; now, new tools like Commsor allow companies to better manage, track, and engage these communities.
The Town Square
What’s revolutionary about the internet is that it takes the most fundamental of human needs and desires—connection—and amplifies it on an extraordinary scale. Today’s renewed focus on community is driven by a series of catalysts: a backlash against performative social media; Gen Z behaviors; a reaction to COVID-wrought isolation.
In 1999, Bill Gates wrote, “The internet is becoming the town square of the global village of tomorrow.” But the first 20 years of the internet focused more on individual pursuit and status than on shared bonds; that’s beginning to shift, and this will be the decade of deep, engaged online communities.
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