“Join the Slack … Subreddit … Discord” These types of messages are everywhere now as ‘community networks’ have exploded during the pandemic years.
The need for community as both a psychological and social level is well established, but during the lockdown years of the pandemic, in-person networking was instantly replaced by online group chats and Zooms. The question is what’s next in the evolution of Community Networks?
The need to belong is perpetually near the top of our psyching, along with the other 4 dimensions of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
When the lockdowns began in 2020, there was an instant digital shift that included a rapid increase in the usage of:
- Business Productivity: Slack, Teams, Product Management, etc.
- Video Conferencing: Zoom, WhatsApp, etc.
- Audio Rooms: Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, etc.
- Group Messaging: Telegram, Discord, etc.
As many dimensions as possible were explored to (temporarily) mimic and nurture human connection across multiple different platforms.
As the lockdowns started to lift later into 2021, and now more permanently into 2022, we saw an explosion of in-person gatherings, trips, and parties worldwide. The physical dimension of human connection and community is something that can never be replaced no matter how many digital tools exist.
But consumer behaviors have no doubt changed. As people get accustomed to small gatherings, a return to the workplace, and large events for some, an array of ‘community networks’ now form a core part of the internet. And we see more and more brands opting to try and build ‘community’ into the core of their marketing strategy.
This edition of New Tech looks deeper into the psychological and design elements that lead the way in what is becoming an increasingly complex/competitive market, yet one that seems increasingly important to explore going into the future.
What Are Community Networks?
Perhaps the first mainstream network in the modern social-media era to facilitate the ability for groups to form around interests, activities, etc. was Facebook Groups. Facebook had the network effects, and Groups was an efficient tool to organize members, share content, and schedule various activities/events.
Next up, group messaging became a boom thanks to WhatsApp, followed by steady competition from Telegram and an array of other messaging platforms.
When Slack launched its earliest version in 2013, it marked the beginning of a new type of messaging that was suited to the enterprise way of communicating across multiple channels, with multiple different teams.
The concept around Slack exploded over the next few years, as many different types of startups and experimental brands started launching Slacks for their communities. Users could be participating in multiple Slacks at any one point, to the point where consumer interest in Slack started to wane.
We saw the beginning of video-chat type concepts in the followup to Slack, as products like Microsoft Teams began to cut into the gains Slack had made in the enterprise. But on the consumer side, nothing really caught fire until Clubhouse came along in late 2020.
Audio-only Clubhouse was one of the fastest growing new networks since Facebook. It set the internet on fire for a very brief period of time thanks to the introduction of voice into the community networks mix. The fizzling out of Clubhouse is the product of an array of factors, but it spurred competitors like Twitter Spaces, which still remain radically popular today.
In February 2021, Clubhouse reached a peak of nearly 10 million monthly downloads, with users clawing to join the invite-only social audio platform.Forbes
Now we see three key themes:
- A boom in Discord types of communities that are a mix between Slack-based messaging, voice types of Clubhouse rooms for the community, and live streaming
- Zoom fatigue that has opened the door to new types of video networks being spawned, networks that are more social and less formal
- A rapid shift in search and consumption behaviors in the younger generations towards Tiktok, which has created new methods of communicating online
Creating a community network has now become both creative and daunting simultaneously, as the number of opportunities to create a network of ‘like-minded’ members has never been as easy or overwhelming. The goal though, should be clear: in combination with real-world activities, work to create a Third Place.
The Third Place concept refers to that (third) place between our home (first) and the office (second) where we can just wind down and relax, both physically and mentally. Common examples of the Third Place are coffee shops, libraries, and other physical places where there are low barriers to entry and opportunities to socialize or linger alone.
The term, which was coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s, essentially refers to a physical location other than work or home where there’s little to no financial barrier to entry and where conversation is the primary activity.The Atlantic
A lot of networks have raised tens of millions of dollars to try and engineer serendipity and human connection, and so far virtually all have failed. We appear to be entering a new era, however, so a new array of networks are emerging to try and fill the void.
Community Networks – The History
Most people are familiar with a lot of the mainstream ‘community networks’ that have emerged over the last decade. But a lot of the up-and-coming networks have come from the edges of the market. Discord, for example, came out of the gaming community in 2015.
Initially launched in a basic form in 2015, Discord is a combination message board, VoIP service and community hubThe Drum
Yet it’s growth exploded in the pandemic years of 2020 and beyond, as they rebranded from a gaming-centric company to a broader community-centric company.
There have been other types of networks that have been spun up out of different types of entities with a particular focus on nurturing communities. Mighty Networks was founded in 2017 by industry veteran Gina Bianchini, who cofounded Ning (an early-stage community network) with Marc Andreessen (of a16z). At its peak, Ning had about 90,000 communities running on the platform.
Similar to Mighty, Clubhouse was founded by an entrepreneur who had previously founded a social app that never reached the mass market despite early hype. Highlight was all the rage in 2012, but fizzled out within 12 months because of the timing.
For that week in Austin, Texas, everyone wanted to try it. Phones buzzed and buzzed and buzzed with Highlight notifications. Venture capitalists wrote checks for millions of dollars. But within a year, the app was deemed too invasive to go mainstream and had essentially flatlined.Bloomberg
Adjacent to Discord, Clubhouse, and Mighty lay platforms like Circle, Discourse, and Geneva. There could be a list of 100s of these types of platforms, but the main ones have built their own niche and are popular in more creative communities. The latter, Geneva, has gained the most ground so far in 2022, principally among Gen Z.
Geneva, which was founded in 2019 and went live in March 2020, works like this: Anyone can set up a “home;” think of it like the main hub where admitted members can enter different rooms (chat rooms like in Slack, audio rooms like on Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces, or even video rooms like on Zoom or Instagram Live) and discuss the room’s topic.Business of Fashion
The common thread between a lot of the up-and-coming community networks is that they are relatively new and come from relatively obscure edge cases in the market:
- Discord was founded in 2015 and established itself in the gaming community
- Mighty was founded in 2017 and found its early niche with creators and small networks
- Geneva was founded in 2019 and gained steam with Gen Z
The community networks that are still thriving and surviving today did not launch to mainstream fanfare right away, like Clubhouse did. They have built themselves up around a small and loyal niche, initially, and gained ground through word-of-mouth and referrals.
Community Networks – The Innovation
The challenge, from an innovation perspective, is to get the mix between communication and trust right. It is an extremely delicate balance.
The foundation of community networks is connection; yet in the online space, we lack a lot of the non-verbal cues that one would get during an in-person conversation or rendezvous. The old cliché is that 90% of communication is non-verbal.
There is clearly no shortage of:
- messaging apps
- video chat apps
- audio-first apps (ie. voice-driven)
The innovation lies in the subtle elements of design to convince people to not only join one of these networks, but participate on an ongoing basis.
One common thread that has turned a lot of people off these types of community networks in the past is that they operated on assumptions linked to their experience(s) on earlier networks like Facebook where being bombarded with notifications and ‘Likes’ was not only socially acceptable, but desirable.
The modern community network knows that there is a certain intimacy required in the UX (user experience) to make people feel comfortable engaging consistently. In fact, a lot of the new community networks have a more feminine design, compared to the massive social networks in the 2010s that were almost all founded by males.
What was missing, he said, was technology that could help them organize properly. The “dopamine-inducing tricks” of likes and followers on existing social media platforms did not meet the needs of these groups, she opined.Zdioy
Another thing that has turned a lot of people off is the lack of fluidity in the user experience. If a feature exists but doesn’t work properly, people feel uncomfortable communicating on that platform because they feel they may be misrepresented when presenting thoughts, ideas, or opinions to a broader community. These community networks are both one-to-many conversations in open group chats or channels, and one-to-one in private chats.
Clubhouse was a pioneer in the ‘social audio’ concept and showed how important voice is as a standalone focus. Geneva also has audio-only rooms. Discord had to solve voice before they scaled-up into the mass market, and it represents a large part of the success of their platform.
Voice was solved long ago at scale, but we wanted to solve it with 1,000 people in a voice channel … and they could be all talking at sub-millisecond latency. That’s not important for people on a teleconference call.” Turns out, though, it was important for a lot more than gaming.Protocol
For an array of reasons, we have yet to see a video-based ‘community network’ make its mark in the mainstream. Discord and Geneva have built-in video functions. Discord focuses on streaming, whereas Geneva focuses more on group hangouts, but still enables streaming. Mighty connects into other video chat platforms like Zoom.
The innovation in community networks is harnessing the balance between text, voice, and video to create that ‘vibe’ of trust, connection, and ultimately community. These are problems that have both a technological and design component, but the most important predictor of success seems to be linked to social psychology. Since a community networks’ success is tied to group behaviour, these aren’t networks that can be built on the cult of the founder(s). They need to be built around the needs of the communities they serve.
Community Networks – The Technology
Technologically, advancements in the current era of computing may be another catalyst for the explosion of community networks even deeper into the mainstream.
‘Cloud computing’ was relatively new when sites like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter were just becoming popular in the early 2010s. Without cloud computing, it would have been impossible to scale-up social networks to hundreds of millions and then billions of users.
Gazing into the future, we can see that voice + video are likely to be the future frontiers within community network’s growth, and a part of that will be covered by an array of technologies that deal with bandwidth, encryption, and machine learning.
As a subset of machine learning, NLP is likely to a play a prominent role in community networks where voice is the dominant use case. Translating voice into actions, messages, and content is one potentially important use case.
Another is in the curation. If community networks start to become hubs for knowledge sharing, content creation, and connecting with others, then the indexing and curation of that content will require sophisticated NLP based systems. Especially in multi-lingual communities.
The social graph will also shift dramatically if people move away from large-scale networks towards an array of niche community networks. Profiles play a less prominent role in most of these community networks, but on Discord, for example, one user-id is used to access multiple Discords – very much in the same way as Slack.
Credential authentication will become an issue as these community networks grow in clout. One of the preferred dimensions of both Discord and Geneva is that users have the ability to stay anonymous if they so choose. This is especially important among GenZ, who are typically the power users of these community networks at the moment.
In the same way cloud computing, messaging, and millennials were hallmarks of the Facebook social media era in the 2010s, NLP, voice, and Gen Z will likely dictate a lot about hows the next generation of community networks germinate this decade.
Overall, community networks have reached an exciting phase of the growth curve and entry into the mainstream of human interaction. With dystopian fears abound, nobody wants to see another Facebook-type platform where conversation and connection become commoditized. The evolution of these current and future networks will be determined by their ability to become viable businesses without changing the community dynamics that has made them popular in the first place.
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