Social Spaces on the Internet

Update: I made a video explaining these trends in more detail!

From The Palace to League of Legends, social spaces on the internet are defined in part by the technology supporting the medium. There are a number of trends that will reshape online social spaces in the next several years:

  • Everyone now has phones in their pockets at all times
  • Voice and facial recognition is becoming more mainstream
  • AR and 5G will enable more content rich apps
  • Norms around IRL interaction are changing (e.g. Pokemon Go. More on that here.)
  • Better batteries and graphic chips make mobile streaming and gaming more reasonable
  • Infrastructure and dev tools for mobile apps, streaming, and games are getting much better at all levels of the stack

We’re seeing early hints of these coming together with Fortnite, for example.

We can take a look at Fortnite’s predecessors to better understand how things have changed. Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield, etc. had very similar features. 5-10 yrs ago, friendships were forged remotely over private lobbies, zombies, boosting, team-based S&D, deathmatch, co-op story mode, etc. You’d go home from school alone (or with one friend for split-screen) and rendezvous with everyone else online. Fortnite’s ‘hangout spot’ effect is really nothing new. But it is special, in my view, for three reasons:

1) Seamless cross-platform functionality. I don’t know how Fortnite was built, specifically. But it’s amazingly scalable. The ability to play on your computer, Xbox, or iPad removes location/situation as a barrier. Plus you don’t have to deal with the entry costs of a full console. This means there’s no bifurcation between Xbox Live and PSN, or more generally, mobile and console. In the past, you couldn’t play with friends unless they were on the same ecosystem — try convincing mom to buy you a whole new console. Fortnite overcomes this large barrier by working well everywhere by default.

2) Relatively simple mechanics. First Person Shooters are usually super complex. The cartoon-like mechanics lower the computational load (good for cross-platform engineering!) and soften the learning curve. Reducing hardware constraints and making the theme more mass-appealing grows the addressable market. Plus a larger segment of the market can actually compete from day one. This bumps retention and virality.

3) Better customization with skins, emotes, etc. The OG FPS games had basic customizations like 4-letter “Clan Tags” that let you identify with a group or “Clan” of players. There was limited ability to make your gun a different color or your character look different. This was a brilliant yet nascent way to encourage and support “hangout spot” socialization. Fortnite takes this to another level with the numerous skins, weapons, and emotes you can earn or buy. You’re not just using the gun or clan-tag your friends have as you would in the OG FPS games. In Fortnite, you’re expressing yourself with an individual aesthetic that you design. That’s a powerful way to build engagement.

I think Fortnite is a great example of distilling the best of past titles into one simple, focused game. The monetization and design is eerily reminiscent of pure-mobile games too. Adding an in-game currency (V-Bucks) that distances USD from in-game goods is a classic mobile revenue strategy. In the past, console and mobile were pretty distinct ecosystems with hugely different economics and distribution systems. It looks like the two will begin to merge. I expect Fortnite to be one of the first, but not the last!

But Fortnite is just one example. There are a lot of levers to pull when it comes to online spaces: accessibility, identity, ease-of-use, social norms, the possibilities of the medium, the focus created by a central activity/goal, and the things you can signal can all influence the way that users interact online.

I expect the traditional and mobile distribution and monetization models to continue merging, and new or underused (e.g. Houseparty or group FaceTime) social spaces to continue picking up users. That’s partly why I’m so bullish on tools like Discord — some media don’t support “social space functionality” but are still great to build community around. Discord adds that social space layer.

I wonder whether we’ll converge into one unified, app-enabled social space a la the Facebook/Oculus/Snow Crash vision. The trends listed above makes me think that we’ll tend towards a variety of smaller single-purpose spaces with richer content. This is supported by the current social media landscape. Each big social space — Reddit, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, iMessage, FaceTime, Instagram — owns a unique “job to be done.” Current fragmentation is a feature, not a bug. More context on that concept here. We haven’t converged into the single unified platform that some thought we would 20+ years ago, and I don’t see anything that will change that going forward.