2021 is the year of consumer social. Yeah, I said it.
For many of us, the pandemic increased our usage of existing social solutions like Snapchat, FaceTime, Instagram, or Twitter. Others turned to platforms in the new regime like Zoom or Clubhouse. Some of us just weren’t social at all. After future of work startups, virtual event platforms, and collaboration tools dominated tech headlines for the past 14 months, consumer social is emerging from the shadows to take over 2021.
Both startup founders and big tech PM’s have been hard at work building products that cater to the Covid-induced adjustments to our social lives, and the return of our pre-Covid social habits. Some have launched and flopped, some are building exciting traction, and many are yet to go live—it’s an exciting time. As we come out on the other side of the pandemic, look for a new wave of products and startups in consumer social to define the first Summer of the roaring 20’s and beyond.
Based on the creation of new social habits, the growth of younger consumer demographics, and the widespread energy and enthusiasm to return to our social lives and activities, here are the platforms and spaces I’m watching closely to define the next era of consumer social:
For a thousand different reasons, building a successful dating app is really, really difficult. There’s a vast graveyard of failed dating app startups, and we’ve accepted that Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge are the clear winners. Aside from the clear winners, Instagram, Twitter, and even Clubhouse have shown that users find a way to shoot their shot on almost any social app. All this goes to suggest that there’s not enough room for an another big app in the dating — *phone buzzes*
**Gen Z has entered the chat**
Whether it’s getting ghosted, getting stalked, getting cat-fished, realizing your match hooked up with your best friends, or finding out your date voted for Trump (twice), existing dating apps can be a minefield. They can also be quite bad for your relationships, health, and productivity. Increasingly, consumers (Gen Z’s especially) are seemingly ditching Bumble, Hinge, and Tinder in favor of apps that better cater to their preferences and behaviors. In the last 18 months or so, a new paradigm of dating apps has emerged, many of which draw upon growing behaviors around gaming, live and short-form video (Curtn, Lolly, Snack, Filter Off) and new-age social networks. Other apps are looking to matchmake romantic partners through drawing (Monet), Memes (Schmooze), or astrology (Struck). Some apps, like Flox, were initially meant to connect groups of friends, but meeting your next bae alongside your friends has introduced itself as a natural and obvious use case.
This one is a no-brainer. Clubhouse was the talk of the town for 9+ months but things seem to have cooled down significantly with monthly downloads falling to 922k in April after 9.8 million and 2.6 million downloads in February and March, respectively. Additionally, since April, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Discord, Spotify, and Slack have launched or are already working on competitive products. Should Clubhouse have sold to Twitter for $4bn in April or is there more magic left to be discovered?? (I would’ve sold). The jury is still out on whether Clubhouse is the next decacorn or the next Quibi, but one thing is certain: the app introduced millions of consumers to the world of social audio, which will surely drive greater innovation in the space. A handful of startups are already creating entirely new social audio experiences or building audio-first interactions into preexisting social graphs.
At 24 years old (25 on Friday), my Snapchat usage is probably 15% of what it was when I was in college so, quite honestly, I’m not super hip to all of the features and filters built into Snapchat’s core product, ephemeral photo messaging. But what I do know is between Snap’s AR spectacles, lenses and experiences, commerce opportunities, Creator platform, Bitmoji network, and the growth of its developer platform Snapkit, Snapchat has been gradually building an empire and potential super-app. Oh yeah, and Snap currently has 500 million MAU’s (with a DAU/MAU of 56%)! Many of Snap’s most recent innovations, announced at the 2021 Snap Partner Summit, are tapping into the prevailing trends and behaviors of the 2020’s: gaming, avatars, social commerce, video editing, location-based events. This is probably the point in the article where you stop reading and buy some $SNAP.*
I’ve felt quite strongly for some time that the next vertical social network will be focused on food. Of all the activities that are entrenched into our everyday lives, eating is one of the most frequent and important, so it’s shocking to me that there’s not yet a single platform that socializes users around food content. Recipes are curated on NYT, Bon Appetit and Food52; tutorials and food hacks are all the rage on TikTok, and you can’t go to Nobu without sharing your meal on your IG story #PhoneEatsFirst.
It’s also a sad reality that food creators rack up millions of views and subscribers on YouTube but still turn to sponsored YouTube videos or selling cookbooks to monetize their content and following. In an era where writers get paid via Substack, and gamers via Twitch, where’s the platform to empower food creators? Don’t say TikTok: food creators existed LONG before TikTok and the bite-sized video only covers a small fraction of food content’s surface area. While the culinary creator space is a considerably smaller market than writing or gaming, creators like Andrew Rea (aka Babish), Sohla El-Waylly, Claire Saffitz, Joshua Weisman, and Tabitha Brown command passionate followings of millions across numerous platforms. This suggests both a large swath of consumers willing to directly pay for their content, and an untapped market of creators eager to turn their passion into a profession.
Unbundling of Instagram (or lack thereof) 📸
At least once a week, I see a tweet about someone complaining about Instagram: “too fake,” “hustle porn,” “popularity contest.” Yet and still, IG keeps chugging along with +1 billion MAUs and over 500 million daily’s. Maybe I’m one of the few in this camp, but I firmly believe that Instagram is a tremendous platform who’s poor reputation is largely attributed to a growing number of bad actors and societal pressures. Over the past few years, Instagram has been inundated with clout-chasing influencers, brands, and ads, but making likes optional was a huge step in the right direction. While it might isolate brands, a feed less centered on likes should lead to a far better and healthier UX for the average user: less brands depending on likes for visibility, less influencers hunting for validation-likes, more focus on your friends.
While I firmly believe IG is not going away anytime soon, the gradual changes to its core product, in an attempt to compete with TikTok, could present an opportunity for startups to attack some of IG’s weaker features.
Here’s one data point: Poparazzi (hopefully you’ve heard of it by now) is a hot, new social app where users’ profile is based on the photos of them taken by their friends (their own personal paparazzi). One of the things I find most fascinating about Poparazzi is that it shot itself to the #1 spot in the App Store by building its entire product around one of Instagram’s least important features: tagged photos.
Anyways, call me old-fashioned but here’s how I rank the importance of the current IG features (obviously based on my own experience):
Feed > Stories > DMs > Explore > Reels > Shop
Here’s my interpretation of how IG ranks the importance of each feature:
Stories > Reels > Shop > Feed > Explore > DMs
Since 2010, Instagram’s core feature has been a feed of (optionally) filtered photos. As they create and place greater emphasis on newer features, is IG building a moat or alienating the users that grew up with and still use Instagram for the feed??
Honorable Mention 🏅
There are so many other spaces, trends, and concerns to highlight but we have dwindling attention spans so I’ll save those for another post. Here are a few that are top of mind for me:
Screenshots: Screenshots have increasingly become a communication medium and digital memory bank. How will we make them more engaging and organized?
Multiplayer: Creating and consuming social content or experiences with your friends is a lot more fun (and healthy) than selfies, and mindless individual feed scrolling. How do we make social experiences more social?
Fashion: Very few consumer verticals are as experiential and social as fashion: I firmly believe there’s a tremendous opportunity for a vertical social network.
Avatars: Fortnite, Roblox, CryptoPunks, Bitmoji, etc...How will consumers identify and express themselves in virtual worlds and The Great Online Game?
Twitter: Whatever is driving the creativity from Twitter PM’s, Jack Dorsey should have ensure there’s an endless supply of it. Twitter is BACK, and is innovating faster and better than ever.
Monetization: I hate ads, you hate ads. As consumers are increasingly resistant to in-feed ads, how else will startups in consumer social monetize aside from premium subscriptions and in-app purchases?
Gaming: I intentionally excluded gaming because the $152bn industry deserves hundreds posts of its own. Here’s a good place to start.
While many new consumer social apps will be a seasonal flash in the pan, as the global population is increasingly vaxed & waxed and settling into new post-pandemic behaviors, don’t expect the season of consumer social to end after Summer 2021. This new era is here to stay.
fun & relevant reading
Food Supply (Abena & Kenny): You are the Culinary Creator of Today. Not Sure? Consult History
Alex Mahedy: On life, lived online
Packy McCormick: Oh Snap!
Packy McCormick: The Great Online Game
Turner Novak: Snap Partner Summit 2021
*this is not investment advice.