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

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.

Verticals

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 d@dcgross.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.

“I keep on hearing about this Bitcoin thing”


A friend emailed me some common crypto/bitcoin/blockchain questions, so I summarized a FAQ. This might be helpful for your next dinner party, since everyone is talking about it.

Why is everyone suddenly excited about crypto? Most of the hype comes from speculative investors who made money. Speculative investing has happened before, and never ends well. There are some true long-term believers, but I think they wish the current mania would end.

Why has Bitcoin/Ether gone up/down recently? The forces behind the daily volatility are opaque. The previous surge may be from the many crypto hedgefunds being started, a Bitfinex bank run, ICO mania or a reaction to China’s ICO ruling. Or the solar eclipse. Nobody knows. Read your own tea leaves.

Isn’t Bitcoin just used to buy drugs online? Yes. A lot of people buy drugs with it. As it turns out, the biggest use-case for Bitcoin isn’t transacting for things. It’s storing value. Like gold. Do you use gold to buy coffee? No. Is it a good place to put your money? Yes. Internet Gold is a big deal.

Aren’t all ICOs scams? Yes. Most are flat-out scams. Amogst the genuine ones, are two types:

(a) those that make use of blockchain technology to produce a token-marketplace (e.g. Filecoin).

(b) those that are building regular products and are trying to capitalize on the hype (“Kickstarter with much more money”).

So are ICOs like IPOs, on day 1? Isn’t this a bad idea? Yes. As Warren Buffett says, “When the tide goes out you discover who’s been swimming naked.” I’m sure things will get ugly in 2–3 years. Moreover, I suspect the ICO market will look much like the IPO market (SEC regulation, etc) in time. It’s just new.

Can everything be solved via the Blockchain? No. Blockchain products need to be fungible. And consensus needs to be controlled via an algorithmic contract. Only a few things fit into this model. Thankfully, those few things are big ideas (a new form of gold, Dropbox, a new AT&T, new power grid, etc).

A blockchain POWER GRID? Really? Come on. When will that happen? Depends who you talk to. The crypto community is full of brilliant, over- enthusiastic technologists. Just like the early Internet, many are geniuses who have more of an affinity for code than solving a real-world problem, today. Like Tim Berners-Lee, these people are directionally correct, but everything will happen 10 years after they anticipate it. So it’ll be a while.

Won’t Google or Facebook conquer this market, like everything else? As far as I can tell, crypto is being ignored by the incumbents. In addition, because early investment is heavily incentivized, a blockchain-based app can disrupt traditional marketplaces.

So will anything real come out of this today? We have our first product: Internet gold. That’s a very big deal! The rest is on the way.

Other than “Internet gold”, how will a blockchain affect my life? Most companies are building replacements for existing things. Filecoin for storing files. Golem for compute. I think this is a head-fake. The first TV shows were cameras pointed at radio shows. Not The Simpsons. Early mobile startups pitched “web search on mobile”. Not Uber. Every time there’s a new medium, we use analogies from the old medium, incorrectly. I’m less excited about the blockchain yielding “50% cheaper storage”, and more about making something impossible, possible.

Make the impossible possible? Like what? Predicting the acutal product is hard. I find it easier to think about what the technology allows: censorship resistance, micro-payments, etc.

What should I do now? Stop making reactionary judgements from a headline you read on Twitter! Read, maybe invest.

Crypto feels like a massive, global version of the Homebrew Computer Club. As obvious as it sounds today, “personal computers” were a contentious idea back then. So while the market feels weird, uncertain and unregulated, you can’t afford to ignore modern-day Steve Wozniak tinkering with an Apple I.

Please let me know if anything wasn’t sufficiently clear or wrong. Thank you to David King and Elad Gil for reviewing this post.