Online Cults of the Future
“Which category are you least excited about?”, I asked a VC recently.
“Social networking, obviously”.
Whoa! I think it’s far from dead. “But Snapchat is losing because Facebook cloned it,” you say. Really? Instagram executed a targeted laser strike, yet Snapchat is still a $16B company. Stop crying. “But it’s a complete commodity market — if it was possible it would have been built already!” you protest. Not quite. Social networks are like brands with network effects. America’s Got Talent wasn’t the first TV show. Simon Cowell didn’t have a special algorithm. He was just creative.
Like brands, the opportunity to build networks exists in response to shifts in societal thinking. Snapchat could have only existed after everyone got bored of non-ephemeral sharing. Bitcoin wouldn’t have been possible without the 2008 financial collapse.
The main competitor to social networks isn’t Facebook. It’s WhatsApp. To scale through the orifice of mobile distribution you need to be sufficiently different from what people can already do in a WhatsApp group. What that in mind, here are some different areas for new social networks:
Audio.app. It’s an app. It tells you what to listen to. Podcasts, Audiobooks, the news, meditation, whatever. You can hear what other people are listening to. AirPods (and clones) are rising in popularity. The “untangling friction” was a subtle but significant impediment to wearing headphones. It’s gone now.
Synchronous podcasts with voice memos. Less intellectually stated as a “radio call-in show”. Imagine this: every day, you open an app at the same time (e.g. 5pm) to listen in with everyone to Sam Harris. Game of Thrones, but audio-only. Members send voice memos to each other. Some are played out by the host. Text may work as well, but it’s hard to produce when you’re walking or driving, and voice memos are soaring in popularity on services like WhatsApp.
The Sims, IRL
The new generation values Internet attention more than privacy. Anything personal should become public over time. We’ll all become characters in The Sims.
Blood sugar network. Once we have widespread non-invasive CGMs, you’ll be able to build the fabled Food Social Network, a Keto Social Network or a Fasting Social Network (a.k.a organized religion). Glucose isn’t a perfect proxy for any of these things, but it’s a number that you can move up and down so I think people will motivated to compete with it. This idea is so obvious that it may accrue to the technology creators (e.g. Fitbit) instead of a startup.
Strava for sex. People gossip about intimate relationship details all the time. It’s interesting to humans. It may sound crazy today that your sperm count will be auto-shared, but you’ll remember that Facebook also sounded wild to many in 2008 (“Why would I post a photo every hour of myself?”). Strap yourself in — the future is coming quickly.
Social Mint.com. People love to gossip about career success. “How much money does he/she have?” or “Are they good at their job?” Humans forever need to know where they stand in the hierarchy. I’m certain over time your financial holdings, job success or (gasp!) calendar availability will become public.
The Batphone. Email used to work. Then it got busy. Too many emails! Gah! No worries, if I really want to reach you I’ll use Slack. Wait! Too many Slacks! Can’t keep track. No problemo — here’s my number. WhatsApp me if you really need me. What’s going to happen when that gets flooded? I’d imagine someone creates an app branded to be the most direct way to contact someone. There’s a cap on the number of messages you receive per day. You only hand it out to your spouse and close friends. Initially.
tl;dr: if it can be measured and is interesting to others, it’ll probably evolve into part of a network in time.
The Speculation Era
People love speculating. The oil futures market is much larger than the underlying asset. Cryptocurrencies make it really easy to speculate on anything that’s tokenized. Which everyone will do.
Quora with a prediction market. Many are trying to build “Quora, but for crypto”. That’s hard to bootstrap. Instead, I’d suggest just skipping to the fun part: speculation. Here’s how you do it: Scrape StackOverflow.com (or use an oracle). Launch SOCoin, mirrored after the actual values on the website. Sell contracts based on the future values of specific users. “Daniel just joined. He has a good Github bio. How much SOCoin will he have in a week?”
Personal details. A “crypto speculation market for everything” might get very crazy over time: “I’ll sell you a contract that Daniel keeps his blood sugar below 150mg/dl this week”. Speculating on “Strava for sex” would be… risque. But it’ll happen in time. If you can measure it, you’ll speculate on it.
Mindfulness. There are a few apps doing this already, but I don’t think anyone has really built out a real peer to peer community around this. A leaderboard for mindfulness is an oxymoron of sorts, but I’m optimistic society will figure it out.
Women-only. My bet is a social network for women would succeed now where it wouldn’t have earlier, given what happened in 2017.
Pain. Much of what builds community is a shared sense of suffering (e.g. Strava). There are two types of pain: healthy (Peloton, Strava) and unhealthy (people trying to out-Jackass each other). Sadly, I think both will exist in an era rich with nihilistic kids who lack a leaderboard to maximize.
More broadly: PhpBB, for iOS. Remember the era of online forums? vBulletin? PhpBB? Good times. Many of the sites were tweaked individually for each community. Popular subreddits also have custom code. The startup cost of making a WhatsApp clone is high. I bet if you reduced it, you’d start to see many mini “communities” develop their messaging apps. Just like Discord did for the gaming niche.
What should I do?
If you’re interested in building a new social network, community, cult or religion, email me. I’d love to help you if I can. My email is email@example.com.
Thanks to Casey Newton, Sam Lessin, Robby Walkrr and Zach Sims for reviewing. Thanks to Marc Andreessen for inspiring some of “The Sims” ideas in this post.