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On the value of creating shared context in the age of personalized, on-demand media
I started watching The Last of Us this week after my friends raved about it. The characters, the pandemic theme, how the show mirrors the video game or doesn’t. I’d never heard of it before, but the allure of shared context got me. I wanted to understand my friends’ references, all the memes, and to judge it for myself.
Humans are wired to connect with others and shared context is the foundation. How do we find shared context? Shared experiences, or the often more impactful collective experiences. But in a mostly digital, remote world, collective experiences feel ever rare. The IRL ones (e.g. going to a live concert) even feel nostalgic now.
Instead, digital media has become core to the modern collective experience. We binge tv shows the weekend they premiere, watch live streams from our favorite creators, share TikTok videos, and scroll through friends’ social posts. Then we talk about it with each other. Digital media is our main source of shared context.
And as technology increasingly offers on-demand, personalized experiences, things that we experience together become even more valuable. So what are collective experiences and what makes them so valuable? How do consumer products create modern collective experiences? And why does this matter now?
What is a collective experience?
The term “collective experience” is used too liberally. Here’s how I define it:
An event that’s consciously experienced by many people at the same time.
I think of an experience as an event — it has a beginning and an end. If it’s more constant, it might actually be a circumstance or an environment. Events make up a person’s life or the history of a community, country, or time. And some leave an impression on you, because they’re new, novel, or just move you for some reason.
And what makes an experience collective?A group of people experience the same thing at the same time, and they know it. The strongest collective experiences involve intense emotion or social interaction. They often happen IRL in private or close-knit groups. Or they happen on a big scale such that they become common lived experiences. It’s harder to build collective experiences remotely, yet still possible!
What makes collective experiences so valuable?
Collective experiences give us valuable shared context — knowledge and experiences that we have in common — and hence help us to relate to each other. And in doing so, they foster social connection, community, and culture.
#1 Shared experiences are socially more valuable
Science shows that experiences we share with others can in fact be more valuable. According to a Psychological Science study, people rate experiences as more intense when they’re shared, even with strangers. So positive experiences can feel more positive and negative ones more negative. The idea is that knowingly sharing an experience with someone, even if silently, makes us more attentive to it.
Other studies show that having common, ordinary experiences is socially far more valuable than having unique, extraordinary ones. This is because unique experiences are less useful for relating to others and fitting in. If you don’t have the “common” experiences that your peers do, you might feel on the outs.
#2 Shared context creates a social network effect
We recognize language as a social tool with powerful network effects. The more people that know a language, the more valuable it is to everyone who knows it. But social connection isn’t just about speaking the same language. It’s often about shared context — from going to the same schools, watching the same shows, etc.
Hence, any shared context — which collective experiences give us in spades — can create a social network effect. The more people with the shared context, the more valuable it is to everyone else who has it. And the more people that have shared context that you don’t, the more you want it too (i.e. sophisticated FOMO).
The network effect of shared context is strongest with carriers of culture, and in the digital native era, that’s social & media-based products. Eugene Wei’s famed post Status as a Service evaluated social networks on three dimensions: utility, entertainment, and status. I see a strong fourth value proposition — shared context. Products that create collective experiences offer shared context as a service.
How do products create collective experiences?
As very online people, we’re glued to content, apps, and the like. Sometimes we create or participate in things, but many times we just consume. We experience a lot of this as individuals, but some products give us a sense of collective experience.They usually result from either deep shared experiences in a small group, or more shallow shared experiences in a large group.
They do it in 1 of 5 ways (and often a combination of them as products mature):
#1 They make collective action a core feature
This applies most to interactive, synchronous (or near synchronous) social and media products. It’s especially true of products that use core product constraints to emphasize collective action (e.g. everyone logs on or posts at the same time).
BeReal, the most recent photo-sharing app to reach scale, is what I’ve called a ritual social app. It’s also a rare new product that creates a collective experience, and one that’s active, not passive — everyday at the same time, everyone on the network is notified to post. If you’re in a crowd, you might even notice other people reacting to getting the notification, making it all the more unifying.
📸 HQ Trivia
HQ Trivia is one of my favorite examples of a modern collective experience. Everyone participates in the same trivia game once a day, at the same time. It’s also a ritual product that blends social, gaming, and media (and early on succeeded in capturing the zeitgeist with over 2M live users at its peak).
#2 They limit the size of the collective group
Limiting the size of the collective can be a temporary or permanent feature. It’s common in early days of any product (e.g. closed betas for a new social app). In some ways, TestFlight is the ultimate platform for creating collective experiences. Features that limit group size (e.g. separating user cohorts) can also help launched or mature products maintain a participatory, community ethos at scale.
As a synchronous social network, Clubhouse is better suited to create collective experiences. The early gated community also heightened the participatory nature of the product and hence made it feel much more collective. Early power users recall memorable experiences that happened in Clubhouse rooms capped at 5K.
🎮 Fall Guys
Video games are a form of participatory, often immersive media. Even largely single-player games can simulate collective experience by making players feel connected. The cohort mechanic (i.e. “battle royale” with 60 players) defines the collective. Fall Guys also has new seasons every few months and come with new themes, features, and game modes. So instead of it feeling like one ‘forever’ game played alone, it feels like we’re co-experiencing a series of gaming events.
#3 They turn content into rare, collective events
Streaming media is largely a passive, solo, on-demand consumption experience. But content, though inherently anti-social, can become collective when enveloped in a rare event — either with intrinsic significance or good external timing.
⚽️ FIFA World Cup
Global sporting events such as the world cup and the olympics deliver shared experience on a massive scale. IRL events with this mass appeal, even streamed online, serve a need that always on, personalized experiences simply can’t. That they happen rarely, once in 4 years, and in the span of a few weeks intensifies the experience. More than half the world’s population watched the 2022 World Cup!
📺 White Lotus
Instead of being entirely on-demand, a blended approach — with scheduled releases, weekly episode drops, and fanfare leading to a big series finale — helps synchronize audience experience and social conversation (a.k.a. a modern version of “appointment-time viewing”). HBO has cleverly adapted to the streaming era by producing high-quality “event shows" (now with the The Last of Us).
#4 They embed temporary collective mechanics
Passive, consumption-oriented media platforms can introduce temporary product mechanics that can engage an otherwise siloed user base in collective action. The product mechanics themselves can also help organically amplify engagement.
R/place is a famed Reddit social experiment, first held on April Fools’ in 2017 and again in 2022. Users could place a single colored pixel on a digital canvas, one at a time; over a million people participated over just 3 days. Individuals and niche communities competed to secure real estate on the canvas. R/Place showed how default async, distributed, niche communities could be activated as a collective.
🎧 Spotify Wrapped
Every year’s end, Spotify neatly summarizes your tastes and time spent. It’s presented to everyone on the same day as a holiday gift, complete with share templates to post to socials. It’s a great example of a largely anti-social product highlighting a temporary social mechanic with a timely event. For Valentine’s Day, Spotify pushed social sharing with Blend, a mix-and-match music style tool.
#5 They foster shared context at massive scale
Mature social media platforms that largely fit the 1% rule — very few people create, and everyone else consumes — fall into this category. It’s hard to build collective experience into asynchronous, 1:many products. But at sufficient scale, the network effect of shared context itself can simulate collective experiences.
The classic network effect we ascribe to TikTok is an indirect, or cross-side, network effect (i.e. more consumers —> more creators —> more consumers). There’s also a same-sided network effect of shared context. The more people that consume on TikTok, the more valuable it is for me to get TikTok references. Tiktok enables what I call weakly collective experience via shared context.
The value prop of shared context of course increases with platform growth and scale. Everyone sees the same video go viral today, shares it with their friends, and talks about it for the next week. We get to know the same songs, dances, memes, and pass them on. Interestingly, TikTok is testing a new HQ Trivia-esque feature (a limited series of scheduled daily games) that’s more strongly collective.
Twitter is more participatory so I’d argue it’s more collective, but at a smaller scale. If you’re a Twitter power user, you’re used to experiencing trending news or drama in seemingly real time with everyone else on Twitter; some instances even register in your mind as discrete experiences. And when you’re off Twitter for a just a few days, you might feel like you’re missing shared context. Newer features like Spaces and Communities push towards more strongly collective experience.
💭 If these examples resonate with you, and perhaps you’ve engaged with them, think about why. How much of the motivation was to have shared context with other participants? Maybe you don’t love murder mystery dramas or video games or sharing front-back selfies all that much, but the allure of shared context with people you know or communities you belong to just spurred you to take part.
Why do collective experiences matter now?
Shared context is incredibly valuable and collective experiences are the best way to build it. But they also feel increasingly scarce. And the more scarce collective experiences are in a society at large — whether IRL or online — the more important and valuable I believe it is for consumer products to help create them.
They’re valuable for users: We’re deep into an era of interest-based digital siloes and solo consumption experiences. We’re gradually emerging from COVID-19 induced isolation. Research is showing a decline in true friendships. There’s growing adoption of remote work. All this suggests the pendulum of human need is swinging towards more shared experiences and more social connection — in a sense more collectivism, not individualism.
They’re valuable for products: Collective experiences drive social connection, community, and culture. And we’ve seen that these three things can drive enormous organic value creation across brand, growth, engagement, and retention. Some social and gaming products have taken this to heart, but streaming and UGC platforms (and many consumer products) have yet to.
At the same time, we’re all marveling at the power of algorithmic content engines and generative AI to personalize everything even more (and do it faster and cheaper). I can’t help but think this comes with a big risk — of eroding opportunities for shared context, connection, community, and culture all at once. So it’s an interesting time, maybe even critical, to reflect on the value of creating experiences that can be common, popular, universal — that we can all share.
The more commonly used term is “shared experience,” which I think of as an experience two people have in common but didn’t necessarily experience at the same time (e.g. sharing the same college alma mater).
There’s a whole category of consumer products that don’t have digital media at their core and rather are dedicated to helping create offline collective experiences (e.g. event organization, meetups, etc.). They have the opportunity to help create more strongly collective experiences, though generally with higher friction and at a smaller scale.