Conductor Social Networks
A framework for thinking about an emergent kind of social network and some hope on what to build next
Earlier this spring, after watching the first episode of Game of Thrones, I received this push notification on my phone from Alt Shift X.
For those uninitiated, Alt Shift X is a prolific and fairly enigmatic YouTuber who is an expert on Game of Thrones and other fandoms. He is known for doing deep dives into obscure aspects of the books and calmly connecting the dots in a dry, soothing English accent. I subscribed after watching his twenty minute video on “What’s West of Westeros,” but had never seen him do anything live. His first stream went for 100+ minutes.
It took a few tries for the episode Q&A’s to get going but, towards the end of the season, Alt Shift X pulled more concurrent live viewers than nearly every other live YouTube stream that month. At ~50,000 live concurrents, Alt Shift X beat live streams of multimillion dollar studios and rocket launches from SpaceX. He also held the concurrents for longer, some of the streams went for nearly three hours.
What was the appeal? How did a British guy sitting in his bedroom playing around on a powerpoint pull this off?
If there is a word for the skill Alt Shift X exudes in his live stream, it’s conducting. Alt Shift X spent years meticulously building an audience on YouTube who understand him to be an authority. He spent years back channeling theories with other hardcore fans. These ingredients, mixed with some software that allows him to dissect the chat in his stream in real time, set the stage for a performance where the roles of everyone are understood. It’s 2019 and the seemingly impossible happens, a conversation in a room of 50,000 on the internet feels sane, educational, and sometimes hilarious.
Alt Shift X uses fairly run of the mill broadcasting software (an app popular with Twitch streamers) but I think he’s tapping into something big that feels like an emerging category on the rise. For lack of a better term, I call this category, “conductor social networks.” A musical conductor’s job is to artfully pull music from an orchestra, and in this case, a conductor does the same but for information, conversation, and/or whatever the conductor desires.
Conductor social networks have two core features:
1. The conductor has a real time ability to drive an audience to whatever space they want them to be in.
2. Once the audience arrives, the conductor has a baton and a podium. They have an ability to communicate, listen and keep order however they choose.
Conductor Social Network Examples By Category
These are some of my favorites from the past few years.
Exit Poll Live
Exit Poll Live is one of the best, most forgotten conductor social networks of the past few years. The app was produced by Matt Hackett, Casey Neistat, and the people behind Beme. The premise was simple. After your vote in the 2016 election, you open the app, look into your camera and explain your vote in less than 30 seconds. All the video is sent to their HQ then hand chosen in a central live feed streamed to tens of thousands that ended up being one of the most insightful pieces of media to exist on the day of the election.
HQ Trivia & HQ Words
HQ needs little explanation at this point. The way Scott Rogowsky’s actions live synced with the interface actions of the show made him the most visible example of a conductor and popularized this format. Despite the apps many ups and downs, it still pulls 300,000+ live concurrents on their featured shows.
Ripkord.tv is similar to HQ in format but with a much wider range of shows.
Tap In is a simple conductor social network that feels like a prequel to some sort of emergent millennial religion. Twice a day, Tap In sends a push notification out that they are about to go live with a meditation. You join the room (usually with around 70 people) and listen to a live guided voice for 10 minutes. I don’t come to this often but when I do, I usually enjoy it.
Super Phone is an app that gives a regular cell phone number conductor like powers to mass message and target your contacts. It has been especially useful for bands and marketers.
Text Journal from Josh Miller and Hursh Agrawal is another recent SMS experiment.
Burrito Time is one of the most simple and effective conductor social networks imaginable. It sends a notification out during a random lunch time and the first 10 to tap it get free burritos. Had thousands of regular players and was a huge hit last summer. Made be the people at MSCHF.
Discord started as a group chat feature for playing video games and grew to become a fascinating social network. Not every community on Discord fits the definition of a conductor social network but the tools they supply to administrate the server make it possible.
What if your conductor could make you sweat? What if you could race against hundreds in your living room? Peloton is one of the slickest examples of a conductor social networks out there and is planning to IPO this year.
The Masked Conductor
On some level, you can make the case that all social networks are “conductor” social networks. Anyone who ends up writing code for a social network and presses deploy is inevitably making decisions about power, hierarchy, and control. The difference with this emerging crop of social networks is that they embrace this power and make it visible. When you compare these networks to Twitter/YouTube/Instagram/Facebook, the differences in how they signal power becomes even more stark.
Think about it this way. When something goes wrong on Twitter. When you flag a tweet for harassment, and press the submit button, can you close your eyes and imagine where that report goes? Can you imagine who (if anyone) reads it? Can you imagine what they look like? What city or country they might live in? When they follow up with a response, can you imagine how much time they spent coming to a judgment?
If you’re struggling to imagine the face and the process behind your harassment report, it’s because it’s a feature, not a bug. Reminding the user that the corporate employee judging you is a real person with their own affiliations and biases, has a way of flicking on florescent lights in the middle of a magic trick. The primary way Twitter/YouTube/Instagram/Facebook have expressed their commitment to being neutral platforms (while still following the law) is through a vast series of, decentralized safety teams that take on a rhetorical voice of god. The effect has been amazing for short term scale but it’s grating. Grating partially because the judgements are inconsistent but also grating because no one wants judgements rendered by someone wearing a mask.
There’s no doubt that the major social networks will continue to make loads of cash and drive tremendous engagement but they can’t decide how to own the expectations they’ve set for themselves. The more they take a visible hand in conducting their own platforms, where they ban and block content on a shifting, broadening range of highly politicized topics, the more they look like they’ve given up their core commitment to neutrality. The more they step back, and let their users go nuts with antivax conspiracy theories, fake science, and targeted harassment, the more they open themselves to lawsuits from citizens and governments who have every reason to be pissed. The view they want to signal is a view from nowhere and the rhetorical slight of hand that previously allowed them to defend this is falling apart.
One of the early founders of Vine says it well.
Conductor social networks feel like such a breath of fresh air because they embrace and signal the hierarchy that has always been in these digital spaces. On some level, it feels so refreshing to watch people like Alt Shift X stream for the same reason it feels so normal to walk into a room that has an agenda, a passionate audience, and a visible moderator. There is a human scale feeling to the space that is so completely lost when I sign in to Twitter each morning. It’s like the difference between entering a concert hall and waking up in The Tower of Babel.
So what if we flipped the script. Instead of trying to build new social networks that work for everyone, what if we started with the conductor and worked backwards? What if we recognized that the skills to bring people together and direct conversation are unique and demand specific tools?
The first wave of these applications is already here. I’m in a handful of Patreon supported Discord groups that are already starting to feel like a warmer backchannel than Twitter. There are a variety of games in the app store that do amusing things with conducting and Peloton is about to IPO. There is momentum but it also feels like we’re beginning to scratch the surface. If there was ever a time to rethink and experiment with how power functions on social networks, it is now.
If you’re working on these kind of networks or in a similar headspace, I want to hear from you. I’m working on a project in this space and am looking to help others who are too.
DMs are open. My gmail is codyvbrown.
Cody Brown is a product designer in NYC and the founder of Tellie.co.
Ty to Rick Webb, Jamie Wilkinson, Katheryn Thayer, Kate Ray, Diego Medina, Jeremy Mims, Scott Kidder, David Blackman, and Rick Stern for feedback on this piece.