The Revival of Consumer Social 📈

Consumer social as a category is having a renaissance.

Until recently, the belief was that big, horizontal platforms (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) were too dominant to take on. Opportunity had presumably narrowed to “vertical” and “IRL” social. But, the degrading quality of incumbent platforms has kept the door open for challengers. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic uprooting social habits, there’s even more time and space for new players to emerge en masse.  

The chart below represents one way that I’ve analyzed the consumer social landscape — looking at established apps and platforms on the dimensions of medium, audience, timing, and permanence. This is certainly not an exhaustive chart, but is an invitation to discuss. Please reach out if there’s something missing, wrong, or just interesting.

Notes: Text communication is default asynchronous. App icons represent specific platform features depending on use case (e.g. Instagram vs. IG Stories vs. IG Live)

Emergent Themes

Excitement around synchronous communication will outlast COVID-19.

Synchronous as a medium has improved ...

Traditional synchronous formats (e.g. phone calls) couldn’t scale or record content, but technology has resolved these issues. Synchronous also lowers the barrier to content creation (e.g. no pre- and post-production), allows creation to be dynamic (e.g. live reactions, Q&A, reactions), and communication to be more personal and clear (e.g. real-time verbal or visual cues).

… creating greater value in 1 : Many and 1: Infinity social …

Creators are using 1 : Infinity, synchronous formats (i.e. IG live, Twitch) to connect directly with fans during the pandemic isolation. As new creation and interaction features are tested and continue to improve, synchronous formats can approach the value of in-person, immersive experiences. However, the higher engagement seen by 1: Few, synchronous apps (i.e. Whatsapp, Zoom, Houseparty) is likely temporary.

… and in 1: Few professional networks

In the professional context, 1: Few, synchronous formats have become more popular (e.g. Zoom). With the expectation of prolonged remote work, synchronous communication will remain important, especially in 1: Few (e.g. intra-team) but also in 1: Many (e.g. company-wide). Not only will this replace in-person interactions, but it will present a lower “creation” barrier than do text-based formats (e.g. e-mail, memos). 

Audio feels like an archaic medium, but there’s opportunity for content-focused social platforms.

Audio is unremarkable…

In the millennial and gen Z era, audio feels like a “neither here nor there” form of communication – higher barriers to create or participate than with text but seemingly lower value compared to video. Audio also risks feeling one-dimensional to creators who are now used to expansive toolkits in other mediums (e.g. emojis, filters, editing).

… but perfect for some content …

However, it’s the simplicity of the audio medium that gives it an advantage, specifically for use cases that prioritize content over presentation (e.g. stories, music, comedy, debates). For these use cases, audio formats can actually lower the effort required to both create and consume content.

…if only platforms can simplify creation

Despite the hype around audio, only podcasting has gained traction; it still has complex production, gated distribution, and lacks meaningful social elements. New platforms need to drastically simplify content creation and distribution and pick a use case — e.g. be the TikTok for audio (simple yet powerful creator tools and easy 1 : Infinity discovery) or Twitter for audio (strong 1 : Many network creation). The much talked about new app Clubhouse has started as the latter, but is still finding its place.

Getting 1: Many communication right is the “holy grail” for social networks.

1:Many has always been complicated …

Historically, the two biggest challenges in “1 : Many” have been in (i) defining the “Many” (Facebook pioneered this early with the intra-school network) and (ii) maintaining or enhancing user engagement (Snapchat’s innovation with “Ephemeral” decreases the psychological barrier to creation).

… never more so than today …

Mature social platforms need to continuously refine the “Many” distinction as network sizes grow (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn) and users drift towards 1 : Few or 1 : Infinity features and formats. They also need to maintain quality of engagement within this network (e.g. not just food pictures and sponsored Instagram posts).

… but there’s opportunity for the thoughtfully optimistic

Nobody has “solved” 1 : Many yet. There are plenty of underserved use cases, unknown creators, and content-seeking consumers, but architecting the social network or community structure is key. One big decision is around organization and discovery by person versus by topic or interest, or a unique combination of the two. New entrants that catch the “zeitgeist” also need to focus on continuously evolving access, controls, and culture-setting, not just on deploying A/B tested features.