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From Clubhouse to Poparazzi, anonymous messaging apps, location-based networks and widget-based ideas, 2021 marked a resurgence of social networks, a year of people connecting in myriad new ways. What made these apps resonate with so many people? More importantly, why did so many other social networks fail to gain any traction?
The success of a social network is gauged by whether people want to use it—that is, if the platform can provide them value.
Early social network founders conflate intentionality with motivation. If a user already has an intention to achieve some goal, whether that’s social validity, communication, expression, a pathway to fame, monetary success or any of the other reasons people use these networks, they’ll find a way to do so. A product can only motivate a user towards this goal by reducing the friction between the user and that utility they desire.
A new founder may think that they can hack growth by secretly scraping a user’s contact book, sending mass emails or creating bots for social networking sites. While these tactics may appear enticing given their reach, they represent the naïve mistake of forcing intentionality on a user. If a social network is effectively developed, users will find a way to share it with their friends; invite flows, rewarding incentives and shareability features will only accelerate pre-existing desires to share an app or grow a network.
In the earlier days of Clubhouse, for instance, users could only join the app if a friend invited them. Clubhouse, though, was only able to successfully execute this strategy because users already had the intention to share the application, evident by the viral tweets and hype on social media. Blockading users and forcing them to ask their friends for invites merely accelerated the already-existent virality of the app.
Invite flows bring up another significant flaw often seen in social networks—copying without intentionality.
The Dinosaur team conflated motivation with intentionality. While social networks have created successful invite systems through reward programs and stores, simply copying the structure without any context proved unsuccessful to the Dinosaur team. The users had no expectation or intention to invite friends initially, shown by the lack of new users. Manufacturing dynamics would only create a disjointed experience between what the user wanted to do, i.e, their intention, and what the Dinosaur team was trying to motivate the user to accomplish. This is not to say rewarding users to invite friends is not effective— tons of food delivery apps, ride sharing apps and platforms like DropBox have successfully employed these tactics. But these methods are costly and should not be employed as a founder’s only source of growth—especially earlier on—unless they can naturally provide the user something of high value that exists within the context of the app.
The same virtue applies to any type of metric for a social network. Copying features is fine; mindlessly copying them in hopes that something will eventually stick, though, goes to no avail. In doing so, founders create a network that in theory solves everything but in reality solves it for no one. Adding streaks, location-based features, cryptocurrency or any other “hot” feature into an application for the sake of “it can’t hurt” will only confuse users and reduce any chance of product market fit.
These features aren’t inherently wrong. In fact, many apps successfully employ them to create impactful experiences. Aimlessly copying them, however, is both a waste of time and an impediment to conveying the core value of a product.
So, what should founders optimize for when creating a social network? The same thing as any product: providing value to users. The social and network components of the platform should only amplify the product’s thesis. Rather than focusing on a multitude of benefits, founders of a new social network should double down on whatever singular benefit their platform provides that significantly differentiates it from other platforms. Copying an existing network and marginally improving some feature results in an uphill battle against that network’s user base, brand and proliferation.
Vidy Thatte, the CEO of the exclusive social network Collage elaborates on this point, citing Collage’s unique value stemming from “remixing […] originally we thought it would lower the barrier to creation but it’s an entirely new way of subtle communication with others on the app.” As opposed to emulating existing networks like Instagram or other drawing apps like Skribbl, Collage creates a unique experience where users can create memes by remixing existing content. The idea doesn’t involve fancy mechanics—instead, by allowing users to create memes in a frictionless manner, Collage has formed an experience that has already resonated with users before its launch.
Similarly, the Locket Widget app has found similar success by perfecting one core feature. The premise is simple — download the app, choose someone special and take a photo that will appear on their HomeScreen widget. Although the app has only been out for a few weeks, it has already reached the top charts on the AppStore.
These points are not meant to dissuade new social founders, nor to dissuade founders from incorporating streaks, invite flows or rewards for users. Rather, social network founders should simplify the process of creation. Remove all clutter—is messaging really necessary? Are elaborate friend suggestions that important for version one?
Create a network that solves one problem uniquely. Make this problem something that users have the intention of getting solved. Everything else—every other feature, update or add-on— should remove any friction between a user and that core value. By simplifying the experience of creation, one can create a network that’s incredibly impactful, emotional and scalable. While difficult, the process has the potential to create something that millions, if not billions, of people use to thrive.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jibran Khalil is a computer scientist and entrepreneur from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a Tech Innovation Fellow at Identity Review and creator of My Workout Group, an iOS app that uses social accountability to help people workout.
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