“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Let‘s contemplate on this Albert Einstein‘s quote for a bit…
As I already discussed in the first part, the current state of social media is no longer working because global awareness has changed. People are more aware of their data privacy being misused, and their psychology being manipulated. In the second part I explained how startups begin to realise this new awareness and entered the market to offer better tools for building social platforms. And that‘s all great—these startups have pretty much solved the problem. But not entirely. Many of the features offered are still based on the existing paradigm of what constitutes a social medium.
To truly reinvent social media, we also need to fully redefine what is a social medium. In this third, and final part, I‘ll expound on possible solutions, which surfaced to me as reflections while I was building Tribevibe.
If you're not paying for a product, you are the product. Period. When you use something for free, you end up being the product sold to someone else, usually advertisers. But when you pay for a service or a tool, then you are treated as a customer.
We‘ve entered a time where customers would rather pay to use a product that was otherwise considered free, as long as they feel listened to and protected by the company selling that service to them.
Just look at markets such as email. The email was considered free since its emergence, with Gmail dominating this area. But lately, we see startups positioning themselves as email service providers where they guarantee your privacy and safety. To do that, they put a price tag. Take a look at Hey for example. Quite pricey for an average customer, but nevertheless a successful digital product. Proof of customer awareness in action.
Then there is website analytics, with Google Analytics dominating this market. But not long ago, other startups began to emerge where their product is not for free. In exchange for money, you get an infrastructure that guarantees privacy and safety for your customers. Fathom, Matomo, and SimpleAnalytics, just to name a few. All successful in doing business.
There is a similar trend happening with the social media audience. They no longer want to be sold as a product, nor to see ads, nor to use a platform that fragments their attention. As a reaction to that, they find little corners on the internet, forming niche communities.
They no longer want to gather followers, but desire to form meaningful connections. Yubo is quite aware on that. People are also tired of content being graded based on the number of likes it receives. Polywork went ahead and decided not to include any likes in their system, and followers‘ count is private. Peter—Polywork‘s CEO—labels these gimmicks as systems of stress, and is quite explicit that he wants his product to be free from any such systems.
This movement is real! Take Instagram, for example. They attempt to remove likes and follows. But they can only do so much, for their business model cannot withstand a true redefinition. So, what‘s a true solution?
For a social medium to truly redefine itself, it needs to also redefine its business model, and shift from being ad-centric to customer-centric.
That means, instead of charging advertisers for users' data, to charge those users and treat them as customers.
I know what you are thinking:
1. Not all users will pay and become customers.
2. By removing advertisers, companies‘ revenue will suffer.
For the first statement—Yes, and that‘s good. For the second—not necessarily. But let me explain them one by one.
It‘s true that not all users will convert to customers. But as I mentioned earlier, there is a movement happening in society, where people flock together and form their own niche communities. They don‘t want anymore to be part of platforms having billions of people. It‘s too noisy, and there is too much information, most of it skewed and false. They crave for the once lost sense of belonging. They crave for qualities, not quantities. They crave for value.
And herein lies the keyword—Value.
To truly redefine social media, you need to find ways how to deliver more value per member than your competitors.
It‘s not about building features for engagement, but building outcomes for creating value. The more value you provide, the more likely they‘ll convert to paid customers, for a price high enough for your business to entirely remove advertisers from the equation.
Therefore, you don‘t need billions of users. You just need a few million, perhaps even less, to earn as much revenue as your competitors having multifold more members. Value becomes an intrinsic metric of success. The more value you create per customer, the fewer customers you need. Simple, right?
But how do we measure value? It‘s not a quantitative unit, but rather qualitative. Do we measure it with a number? No. Because again, it‘s a quantitative measurement. Then where do we draw the line if a social media business has reached success?
The pandemic accelerated a trend where humans are reevaluating who they are and what’s most important to them in life. Values are being shifted and re-prioritised. People crave for inner and social transformation. But current social media can‘t provide a transformative platform.
Their algorithms are tuned up for engagement, not ensagement. And no, that‘s not a typo. Ensage is a new word I came up with that you won‘t find in the dictionary. It‘s a construct from the root word “sage”, to better explain a concept for creating meaningful engagement, where the outcome is not a number, but human transformation.
This is the first writing where I publicly introduce the word “ensage.” If it becomes used throughout the internet in this context, it would be fair if all mentions reference back the original source—here. I have high hopes for this new concept compressed in a word because it helps explain a new wave of product thinking, a more ethical one, which is why I even named the company behind Tribevibe as Ensage.
To get back on the question of how to measure value, I‘ll reply with a question: Do we really need to measure it? Our minds are so framed to think in terms of numbers and charts. After all, we are talking about a customer transformation, an ensagement. And believe me, you‘ll know when a customer has been transformed (ensaged) through the use of your social medium. They‘ll shout in joy inviting others to join. They‘ll talk about it in various online and offline spaces. They‘ll become your biggest fans. You don‘t need to measure that. You‘ll just know it. And all of your company employees will know it.
To build a social platform for ensagement, you need to think in terms of customer outcomes, not product features. Product features are not a means to an end, but a functional ladder for a customer to achieve a certain outcome that is some form of ensagement.
This is hard to grasp if you think from the existing framework of building digital products. Even for me, it took plenty of time to fully digest it because I needed to first throw off old frames I‘ve inherited throughout the years while working as a product designer.
Such frameworks had not only infected our designer‘s minds but our customers‘ minds as well. They‘ve been indoctrinated by social media to think in terms of posts, likes, stories, followers, adding as friends, newsfeeds, pull to refresh, etc. And once a social platform offers them something completely different, oh… it‘s going to be a really hard sell. But is it worth it? Hell yeah!
I‘ll skip the smooth transition, and jump straight into explaining what features I imagine would contribute to a healthier social medium, aligned to ensage customers, not merely engage them.
1. Bookmarking a member. You can privately bookmark members from the community, just like you would bookmark a website. By not being able for other members to see your friends/connections/followers count, the race for who has the highest number becomes obsolete. Bookmarking a member also relieves a technical burden, as it‘s simpler to build, yet it creates the same outcome members need—to keep track of their favourite people.
2. Invite system. This one is a bit counterintuitive but crucial for building a strong community spirit. By creating friction on purpose you naturally filter out people who might not be so thrilled to become part of your social medium. And that‘s good. Because having only the right people strengthens your community spirit, which aids in meaningful engagement, that is, ensagement. An invite system also helps you battle spam, bots, and fake profiles, which costs a lot of money to remove anyway. But with an invite system, a member cannot invite a fake profile, nor bot. And if a member, or group of members, over time turn damaging to the community, the invite system can help you track down the specific branch where the disease started to spread, and pluck it out. Such features will save lots of money to a company over time, and in return will give the community a sense of safety and wellbeing. And when that is achieved, you‘ll be financially rewarded even more because members will do the marketing and sales for you, by inviting relevant new people to your social medium.
3. Review system. This one adds up to the previous feature, to strengthen the community even more. On the other hand, it helps for the members to grade themselves, and to pinpoint specific members who are damaging the community values, so that you can easily act upon them. Such a feature is also a bit of a double-edged sword, as it‘ll open additional work for you to be the final arbiter, so I‘ll put it as optional.
4. Passwordless login. Don‘t make your members remember yet another password. Especially don‘t give them the option to register through their other social media profiles because you are giving free data to your competitors. Instead, implement a passwordless login where for each time a member logins, you generate a code sent to their email (or other channels) so that they can enter it. Such a feature also relieves you from the burden of storing passwords in your database. And even though they must be encrypted, a hacker could find a way to decrypt them. Passwordless access might be harder to develop, but will invariably pay off in due course when your competitors will battle with hacked passwords, and in your realm, there is nothing for hackers to steal. The general rule is, the fewer customer data you store, the less tempting your system becomes to hackers.
5. More meaningful chat. If a social medium introduces the perfect blend of written, audio, and video conversation, or some form of innovation around chat, it will leave a dent in the social media universe. Different people have different wishes to express themselves. Giving equal ease of access to the three types of expression will satisfy all of them. And this, I admit, is very tricky. I still haven‘t come up with a proper solution, but one thing is clear: Stickers, animated avatars, and liking a message has introduced an unnecessary element of fun and had made people glued to the screen even more. But if your outcome is to create a transformation in your members (especially if they are paying for that), these little gimmicks become an obstruction to those means. Call me old fashioned, but I believe steering your members towards more meaningful, and less superficial communication, will be a win over time.
6. Profile builder. Since your members, after all, have a need to fully express themselves somewhere in your system, dedicate a special space for that. If a child is drawing up doodles all around your flat, to solve it, just offer them a specific table, or a wall, and encourage them to express their creativity at that exact spot. In the context of a social platform, I believe the best place to encourage creativity is on their own profiles. The way I envision this section is like lego blocks. Nothing is pre-defined. The only limitation is the type of lego blocks. Each Lego block is a type of content. It can be a title, a sentence, an image, an embedded video from a third party, a review they‘ve received that they want to highlight in context, and so on. By mixing and matching those content blocks in a meaningful way, members can tell a story about themselves. On top of that, it will encourage members to be authentic in their expression and perhaps they might even be highlighted by the company, or win a prize. Always award creativity.
I‘ve been thinking about these features for quite a while, and the bottom line is that I wanted to achieve a system with fewer functional complexities, less technical burden, for a maximum outcome and maximum ensagement. These features are never addictive, add the right dose of fun, and are fully aligned with a business model that treats members as customers.
Initially, I had it that I should not share these insights publicly because it was me that I wanted to achieve all this, with Tribevibe. And I tried. But having the entire process bootstrapped while working on client projects on the side is simply unattainable.
That‘s why I decided to share all insights I learned along the way so that if I don‘t achieve them, someone else should. Because humanity deserves a healthier social medium. Because I want my children to grow in a better future. Because the timing is right.
I envision two possible future scenarios. One, where a business will decide to fully reinvent social media treading the path more-or-less according to the course I explained above—and Polywork might be doing it as I write. Second, where there won't be one company to reinvent social media, but multiple businesses who will sell platforms for community builders to build their own niche communities.
Both possibilities are not mutually exclusive.