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Part two: Community building startups to the rescue


November 5, 2021

Human awareness has changed, but social media wants to keep the status quo. If Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat have mirrored something to us, it is our human weaknesses revolving around social validation. Thank you for that. I mean it. Because without them we would‘ve not been able to see how easy it is for technology to exploit our weaknesses. So, they‘ve played their part. Now, it‘s time to move on.

Sidenote: This writing is a continuation of the first one expanding on the current state of social media. I invite you to read that one first.

The rise of niche communities

The current social media is a noisy place, and people had enough of that noise. So, they started to distance themselves from the mass and began to flock together in smaller groups based on interests, skills, vision, and purpose. At that time, the market didn‘t have good enough alternatives for creating independent online communities, so people continued to hang around in various groups on Facebook, Instagram, and the like.

But those can only do so much, for their business models are not designed to produce states and outcomes such as calmness and wellbeing, sense of belonging, time well spent, and various offline experiences. They still need to serve you ads, to recommend content that‘ll capture your attention and put you in an endless loop. If they don‘t do that, they'll go bankrupt. Your attention is their fuel for profit.

This clear misalignment of supply and demand created a market opportunity for new startups to offer tools for building online communities.

The birth of community building tools

Circle, Tribe, Panion, Hivebrite, Discord, PeerBoard, MightyNetworks… Just to name a few. They‘ve all seized portions of the market once they realised the new needs and values of people using social media.

We are living in a time of personal branding, influencers, and thought leaders. They all have a fair share of followers. And they all know that having followers on social media is too risky. A simple algorithm switch can drastically decrease followers base and engagement rate. Because followers are just that—followers. They come and go, and are owned by social media, not by the community creators.

You can‘t create a thriving community and call it your own, if built on a social media channel that owns your audience.

That‘s where startups for building communities come in. On the one hand, they provide a tool where community creators can build their online spaces, and be fully in control of their members, while on the other hand, those members can feel that someone truly takes care of their needs and values. They can feel safe and accepted. And they know their time is valued.

But there is a caveat. I‘ve analysed a few of these, and each is more or less built upon the existing paradigm of social media. That means, likes, upvotes, reactions, gamification, social logins, social sharing, adding as a friend, etc. Why?

Two answers come to mind. First: because current social media has deeply ingrained in us mental models that we now expect to see the same features everywhere we interact online. Second: it‘s easier for the community startups to sell familiar interfaces to us, with similar features because it minimises our learning curve by having us not to learn new mental models. But this is not plucking the root from the core problem social media has left us.

Social media had built these features to maximise our attention and create little to no friction to interact so that we end up glued to the screens and see more ads. Such an approach aligns with their business models—running ads. But community creators have different goals in mind. They need friction to create a more meaningful engagement (or better yet, ensagement.) And while these startups are selling tools to create meaningful communities, they still rely on the same old features that are a byproduct of an ad-based business model. Such features and the outcomes community creators strive to build, are to a great extent, misaligned.

Misalignment between features and outcomes

Let‘s analyse a few. What value is created by clicking a “like” button? Sure, you can quantitatively measure engagement, but there is no friction whatsoever. No friction means everyone can click on it without much thought. Except creating an element of fun, where is the value to be measured? If one of your members is clicking “like”, “upvote”, “clap”, “heart” on each of your posts, does it mean she is most engaged? Or does it simply mean she has a proclivity to express agreement with a click? If we leave it at that, we‘ll never find out what she truly meant by clicking that button. And having emoticons as reactions simply deepens the problem.

Then there is gamification. It‘s designed to create a sense that something is lacking, and you need to get it. This, again, keeps members glued to the screen to attain certain digital stature by acquiring more badges. But if the outcome of a community creator is to sell a course, to create a paid webinar, or to make an offline experience for its members, then what‘s the point of playing on this human weakness, and creating mental noise where isn‘t needed?

Social logins and social sharing. Seriously? If a community-building startup aims to build a tool and help community creators move away from their members from social media, then what‘s the point of giving free traffic and free data back to the behemoths? Will they give you back? No.

What‘s next?

If community building startups truly want to redefine social media, they need to also redefine, and reinvent every feature. Don‘t get me wrong. I‘m grateful they are present in the market. In fact, I‘ve proudly chosen Circle to integrate into my Tribevibe community, for without it, I would‘ve not been able to launch on time and budget. It‘s a great tool. Not ideal, but great enough for this transitory phase. Because it‘s a transition, from a toxic social media state to a better online haven, where our time and needs are valued.

But I‘m sure they can do better, and offer features that fully align with the outcomes of their customers‘ audience. It needs design innovation. And it needs business courage to shape an entirely new vision, aligned to the current state of human awareness. It needs the use of an ethical approach as a competitive advantage, which I‘ll discuss in the third, final part of this writing.