Ritual Social 🗓️
An updated version of this essay was featured in Every — check it out here.
I do some things everyday. They’re mostly ADLs (activities of daily living) — things like getting dressed and eating. I text, call, or FaceTime with family and friends. I work on most days. I (try to) exercise.
I also wander the internet! I use Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok a lot. The truth is that I’ve built near daily habits around these apps. I don’t consciously decide to use them anymore, it just happens.1
Some things feel different though. I do them consciously, with my full attention. They’re simple pleasures. They’re my daily rituals.
Habit vs. Ritual
Habits are things we do that get so ingrained in us they become automatic. They don’t need much effort or awareness. They can give us highs (the dopamine hits), reinforcing habits and even pushing to addiction. We can develop habits around work, play, or even patterns of thinking.
Rituals on the other hand are intentional and done with focus. Making a hot cup of tea, taking an evening walk, doing a daily crossword puzzle — there are so many simple rituals that can ground us and give us comfort and joy.
Anthropological definition aside, a ritual has standout characteristics:
It’s intentional. You consciously engage and are present.
It’s participatory. You’re active rather than passive.
It’s meaningful. It’s valuable beyond the action itself or any utility. It’s often emotional — e.g. nostalgic, fun, celebratory, identity-forming.
It’s consistent. It’s reliable in timing, expectation, quality, etc.
It’s finite. There’s a constraint around time, effort, or action itself.
Habitual Social vs. Ritual Social
Big social — my moniker for the collective of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tiktok, and YouTube2 — is emblematic of what I call habitual social.
Habitual social apps depend on having a large daily user base (the sacred DAUs). And the more time each user spends, the happier the platform.
Habitual social apps thrive off your bad habits. The notorious “doomscroll” means consuming until you run out of content, you’re interrupted, or you’re painfully aware of the time sink.3
I’m optimistic that there’s another type of social product — one that can actually thrive by creating rituals. Ritual social apps want to create meaningful moments, even if small ones.
Ritual social apps are at their best as a mindful microdose of feel-good. Anything more is just a bonus (if possible at all).
In consumer social, rituals have been likened to just a feature, a mechanic, or a new entry strategy. They haven’t been celebrated as the main thing. But, I see a lot of good in ritual social as a philosophy and core element of social products.
Ritual Social Apps in the Wild
Most experiences we think of as rituals happen IRL. But, rituals can be created online or even in an app, and they can be social.
A few apps have stood out to me on this front, and they fulfill many, if not all, of the characteristics I described. Their core experience is intentional, participatory, meaningful, consistent, and/ or finite.
Wordle — solve a daily, 5-letter word puzzle that we all talk about. It’s live at midnight everyday and needs just a few minutes of focus. The single-player game gives you a sense of accomplishment; you can hack ways to do it with friends or family. The sharable yellow-green score grids heighten the collective experience.
BeReal — share an authentic front-back selfie with friends once a day. Everyone’s notified at the same, random time everyday. It’s about being real; you only have 2 mins and no filters. The ‘give to get’ mechanic (you post to unlock your friends’ posts) makes you actively engage. (As an early investor in this one, I’m biased 🙂).
Dispo — take retro-style photos that you can’t see until tomorrow. It’s about capturing spontaenous moments, not attaining selfie perfection. You can take pics anytime but they’re only ‘developed’ once a day (create whenever but wait to consume!).
Cappuccino — share daily updates with friends as a mini group podcast. Everyday at the same time (you choose), you’re asked to record a short audio clip (<3 mins). The final compilation is shared to the group the next morning (strong ritual time!).
Letterloop — share regular updates with friends via a group newsletter. Everyone answers the same set of questions, sharing updates or anecdotes to stay in touch and build connection. The group chooses the timing, usually weekly or monthly.
HQ Trivia — compete in a quick game of trivia twice a day. HQ Trivia is a ritual social game (and a storied one). The live, public competition makes it more participatory and a collective experience (and helps get critical mass).
Wdyt. You probably haven’t heard of this one 🙂. It’s a fun weekend project I’m working on with friends and the original inspiration for much of this piece.
How Social Products Can Create Rituals
To create rituals, products need specificity and constraint. Specificity is about what you want users to do, constraint is about what the product allows.
Where this comes through in product isn’t so prescriptive — formats, features, even simple mechanics are fair game. Some examples below:
Limited supply. Content is abundant and attention is scarce. Habitual social apps serve as much as you’ll take, but limiting supply can help set up a ritual. Wordle single puzzle a day is refreshing. It feels low commitment and you get a sense of accomplishment from ‘completing’ a defined task. You also can’t binge and get bored or burn out.
Timed-release. Whether you want a user to create or consume, you can let them do it anytime or make consistent timing a core feature. Cappuccino collects ‘beans’ throughout the day but prompts you to listen the next morning; Dispo is similar but with photos revealed the next day.
Notifications. The ever powerful notifs, when used correctly and sparingly can be a great reminder and call to action. The more consistent and actionable the notif, the better. BeReal does this well (and it was core to HQ Trivia’s live game). Contrast this with habitual social where you get a slew of notifs based on a complex algorithm that’s ever-changing and opaque.
Give to get. In a give to get model, you have to create to be able to consume. BeReal makes you post before you can see your friends’ posts (Glassdoor is a great legacy example of the ‘give to get’ mechanic too). Why is this good? The canonical 90/9/1 rule of big social says 90% of users lurk, 9% contribute a little, and 1% a lot. Give to get means everyone contributes.
Streaks. Habitual social apps rely on extrinsic drivers (likes, views, follows) as incentives. But, the consistency underlying ritual apps can itself be gamified to create a sense of achievement and joy (either extrinsic or intrinsic value). Let users show their work publicly (e.g. Snap streaks) or celebrate their work privately (e.g. Wordle streaks, BeReal memories).
Graph structure. Social products are often defined by graph structure, i.e. open or closed, and, more colloquially, phrases like close friends, mutuals, groups, following, for you, etc. In multi-player formats, this tell us who directly impacts our experience. Single-player experiences can be indirectly social — through shared context or a collective experience (e.g. Wordle scores!). There isn’t a single right answer, but more intimate, participatory experiences or shared collective experiences lend well to a sense of ritual.
A Few More Thoughts
Rituals are a delicate balance of art and science. Something ‘meaningful’ and ‘intentional’ for example can’t be achieved with just brute force.
Rituals don’t have to be low commitment, but the less they ask of you, the more likely I think they are to be adopted (especially if very frequently).
Can ritual social apps be big, or are they little social? I think this is mostly based on format, graph structure, and network effects. But, you could argue big social could always be bigger because it goes after 100% of attention.
A related question — can ritual social apps become habitual? Yes. I think all you have to do is remove constraints and appeal to more human vices. Morning coffee rituals aren’t too far from a caffeine addiction after all.
Bringing it back to the start, ritual social is about having a special place in someone’s day or week (and just maybe that’s a recipe for long-term success). Building in ritual social is all about specificity and constraint. These may seem antithetical to growth or engagement. But, they might also be what earns you a place in the hearts of users and not just their minds.
So don’t be greedy — get your DAUs, but give them some time back.
And let’s do this again, next week?
I use Clubhouse every day too, but I’d describe it differently than the rest of these :)
Is there a good acronym for ‘big social’?
I admit big social products didn’t all start this way. Maybe Facebook in it’s original form, when there was just a profile page and a wall, could feel like a daily ritual. News feed might have changed that. And, the products have gotten to where they are now with growth in mind.