July 23, 2020 –
A pandemic, shelter in place, long-awaited social justice: the first 6 months of 2020 have changed how we relate to ourselves and each other more dramatically than any period in my lifetime. Social media companies, more than ever, are what we use to communicate and consume media during this time (Facebook, Linkedin, TikTok, and others are up over 25% in daily usage).
And boy are we conflicted about our addiction to these services, even as we lament our reliance on them, their power and their reach. Out of this dissonant reckoning, a new generation of social media platforms is emerging, marking potentially the most exciting primordial soup for new consumer companies since the launch of the iPhone. I call it the Rehumanization of Social Media: a return to valuing human intimacy and authenticity instead of clicks, likes, and votes.
A brief history; how software ate our relationships
Before social media, media was programmed by people. They worked at institutions like Hearst, NBC, Viacom and Disney. User engagement like ratings were the objective, but there was always editorial friction and decision making in the creative process before media reached the consumer. When I was at Viacom in the early-2000s I remember being surprised at how deeply creative people at MTV felt committed to creating content that captured and reflected the teen zeitgeist with empathy and humor, in part beholden to the brand that had been created before them.
2005 changed that. YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace became massive, quickly. Suddenly content was created by the user, for free, and content was no longer king. The application was the new battleground. Asking traditional media companies to compete there is akin to expecting Comedy Central to reinvent the television set every year. Lacking the skills to create compelling technology platforms, every valiant effort by traditional media to unseat the upstarts failed.
Social media companies pursued growth. The best way to grow was to help people dramatically reduce the friction required to engage with as large an audience as possible, and by doing so collect status points. Humans are wired to desire status from other humans. Social platforms bring the transaction costs of collecting status to zero. For example, in 1999 it would have been very expensive and time consuming to get 20,000 people to tell me how great I looked at my 30th birthday party. Instagram makes it free and instant. That’s heady (and addictive) stuff to our tribal lizard brains.
The best way to seamlessly collect status is to create an asynchronous feed that allows users’ content to be shared across the world, and to make likes, clicks, and shares effortless. This also creates the perfect feedstock for the new editorial master: the algorithm that’s “programming” the feed to enable maximum engagement and time spent.
From then on, the product arc of every social media platform bended towards one-to-many “broadcasts” in the form of content feeds (including even Facebook which started out as a network of people we knew in real life), which enable advertising inserted alongside other posts, kicking the status-to-engagement-to-money flywheel to current heights.
And thus, software ate our relationships; at least, the quasi-real digitally enhanced and curated connections we accumulate and engage with on social platforms. No humans, no editors. Just taps and clicks. To be sure, messaging apps, where intimate groups do flourish, scaled as well, but precisely zero of these have built standalone businesses outside of China.
Back to the Future: Re-elevating the human
We’ve all felt the collective societal nausea that’s resulted from 15 years of consuming empty clickbait calories on our smartphones. Social media status points aren’t as satisfying as real esteem from your coworkers, real relationships, or real friendships, even though we can hardly escape their pull.
What’s missing from these platforms by and large is what was removed in the last 15 years.
Humanity. Intimacy. Reality. Depth. Connection. An expression and representation of values. Nuance. Balance. A real Conversation. A curation role, an editorial role. A dedication to serving a master other than reach or likes.
Enter the new class of social platforms.
The new battleground of next generation communication platforms
Users have voted with their feet on how they want to connect with friends, loved ones, dates, co-workers, business partners, and celebrities. My partner Tim calls it Web 4.0 or the experience web. A return to real conversations, real relationships, real connections, over exploding products like Zoom, Houseparty, even FB Portal. A different value system embedded within the product structure and cultural norms of new communication platforms. This is the promise of the next generation. We are now seeing:
Live experiences over asynchronous (and therefore easily anonymous) feeds.
Audio and Video instead of text and photo, for higher bandwidth communication.
Long form instead of short form for deeper, richer conversations.
Our authentic, real selves instead of our hyper-filtered Insta-selves.
Hosts are the Most
One of the most interesting and potentially optimistic shifts of the new social media world is that the most important skill has reversed: from Self-promotion, to Hosting.
Consider Clubhouse, where the hosts are the lifeblood of the discussion, and the application serves as the convening container to spark dialogue. Or Lunchclub, where the application itself, by matching professionals effectively with AI, serves the role of magnanimous dinner party host, ensuring everyone is paired with a sparkling conversationalist.
This strikes a major cultural shift away from ME-based social media to WE-based formats, where giving, sharing the spotlight, and facilitating are the new social currencies.
Could this shift spark a broader realignment of cultural values, just as the feed-based algorithms of the prior crop of social media companies turned a generation of Millennials into pink-chasing Insta-clones and sparked the cancel culture?
The new influencer will be the one who convenes the most effectively, facilitates the best conversation, or hosts the best party in service of a group and an audience — and less in service of themselves. Timabland’s Verzuz on Instagram Live is a great example of this. A new rewards system that values generosity of spirit instead of manufacturing of image.
Inspired hosts will become professionals in their own right, known for their skills in deftly creating safety, community, entertainment, and humor within these experiences, and represented by new talent agencies to help expand their potential audiences. MTV created the “citizen” VJ in 1980; tomorrow’s media platforms will do the same across multiple genres, finally re-constituting the role of human “editor” for a new set of platforms and cultural contexts.
Where can technology help?
Embedded within this framework is the role of the new social media application, which is to create the conditions for authentic, revealing, rapidly vulnerable (and hence satisfying) communication. The product battlefield will be captured by the founder who can create the healthiest, most dynamic, most fun environments for the planned serendipity to take place. It’s communal magnanimity as product strategy.
Inspired product founders will win by manifesting the conditions for great communication within the context of the app. Examples are a host of new conference apps like RunTheWorld, Hopin and Glimpse, which make abiding by communication norms easier in a digital context with thoughtful prompts and behavioral norms embedded within features. Or Dev.to, a Mayfield portfolio company, which has open-sourced its community platform software, explicitly designed with built-in nudges to maintain good behavior, starting with the developer communities, historically one of the more hot-headed and misogynistic communities on the Internet. With the right design and constraints, platforms can avoid the dangers posed by thoughtless and anonymous (and usually therefore destructive) participation.
These trends create great opportunities for the thoughtful use of frontier technology. For example:
- AI-driven sentiment analysis applied to help make up for the lost micro-signals in normal communication and help bring people closer together
- Automated but personalized prompts that help people feel closer more quickly in breakout chats or small group sessions
- Insertion of key background information in the viewer space as people communicate, helping to provide context for comments and insights
- Matching algorithms that help put together far more compatible meetings for dating, professional networking, etc.
Free your mind, and the business model will follow
Essential to this shift will be a move away from a traditional ad-based business model. Luckily alternative and novel business models in the social media context are not unknown, especially in Asia.
Donations and tips for great “hosts” may be the new norm, completing the arc begun by Twitch. In 2020 consumer paid subscriptions are widespread and could be applied to the right use cases. Virtual goods have so far been the province primarily of the more addictive segments of social gaming (in the US that is) but there’s no inherent reason that they couldn’t be utilized for self-expression, building community, or rewarding excellent and fulfilling experiences.
Entrepreneurs will have the challenge of building new business models along with new platforms, a needed and healthy direction for what will likely become a new class of essential communication services, and one that can align the money with the movement.
Much is unknown as the next wave materializes. What new business models will prevail? What will scaled high intimacy platforms look like? Can these platforms have a meaningful impact on our shared social culture? Much will emerge and come to light as more intrepid entrepreneurs scale these hills.
In the meantime, our hailing frequencies are open to all inspired founders who share these values and want to speak to us about their projects. Reach out to us at rishi at mayfield dot com!