Creative Networks, Social Networks, and Which One Is “Next?”

As someone who spends a considerable amount of time using and evaluating new types of consumer internet products, I find that it’s very easy to lump many of these new startups into the ever expanding “social network bucket.” It’s a safe catch-all, but I find that it’s a description that sells short and / or isn’t aligned with the original value of many of these products, the reason many people use them, and who the earliest adopters are. A more appropriate term for many of these products is likely “creative network.”

Creative networks are fundamentally about providing people with avenues for distributing content. A more daunting task is building a tool, which in and of itself, inspires people to become creators and may sit on top of a network. Casey Neistat, YouTuber and co-founder of Beme (a little more on this product later), considers this aforementioned task to be the highest level of the creation hierarchy. In the first instance, that being simply providing more frictionless routing of content, YouTube is likely the paradigmatic example. Video as a medium wasn’t new, and the format, particularly when YouTube launched, was fairly consistent with what creators were accustomed to.

In the second case, I’d offer up Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, and even Pinterest as some of the most successful creative networks that were simultaneously coupled with a new tool. All of these networks were joined with tools that, in my opinion, unleashed a tidal wave of creative early adopters. While many were naturals when it came to those tools, they also likely inspired people to be creative for the first time or in a particular medium for the first time, whether that was user generated mixed media, photography, stop motion and short form videos, or simply expert curation. All of these platforms have birthed stars and influencers who likely never would have risen to prominence without them (and they will certainly continue to do so). Last night, Sam Gerstenzang posed a related question on Twitter:

While many YouTubers have stayed on the platform, the biggest ones have moved off and will continue to do so. I don’t think it’s a matter of needing to do so to “make it.” I think that that type of talent translates to more traditional forms of media and other similar networks more easily (e.g. Miranda Sings appearing on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”). Interestingly enough, when it’s been a tool on top of a network, the creator has tended to stay within that medium or ones very similar to it. The vast majority of Vine stars have stuck to amassing their following there because it’s such a unique format that their talents often don’t translate outside the network. However, some Vine stars, such as Shonduras, Nicholas Megalis, Logan Paul, and Jerome Jarre, have been able to take their talents to Snapchat Stories because the format and audience is relatively similar.

[Quick aside on Snapchat: Given its origins as a one-to-one or one-to-many messaging app, I don’t consider Snapchat to have started as a creative network by any means. However, Stories began as a sort of creative network within the larger Snapchat ecosystem.]

However, at a certain point, each one of these creative networks leveled up to being a social network. Evolving from a creative to a social network may not be the goal of the network’s founders (or even their investors if they have any), but typically, it is likely beneficial to the sustainability and vitality of the network. A social network isn’t necessarily larger than a creative network, but I believe there is an evolution that may occur, which is defined by a few key attributes.

A creative network may evolve into a social network when an increasing number of people become creators, when there is an acceleration in engagement and responses between consumers and creators, and when there are interactions among consumers with a piece of content serving as a catalyst for discussion. These evolutionary steps are almost always the result of a creative network reaching a tipping point in terms of scale, reach, and / or accessibility, which come from certain necessary conditions, such as a low barrier for creating content and distributing it outside the network.

On Tumblr, there was a moment a three or four years ago when it became the default blogging platform of choice for many people who wanted an easy “plug and play” solution. They weren’t the original cohort of Tumblr creators, but they were consumers of content on the network and were gradually converted. On Instagram, this conversion happened even more quickly in the company’s life cycle. Moreover, there has been an ever increasing amount of discussion in the comments sections within the app. The original photo (or video) is simply the launching point for conversation. A similar social interaction, conversation around content, has occurred on Vine, particularly given the content’s portability to other platforms, like it’s parent company, Twitter. And Pinterest has made up for its relative lack of comments with a explosive growth of consumers converting to creators (i.e. curators).

So, given this hypothesis around the ascension of creative networks, particularly those developing new tools, to social networks, which ones should people be paying attention to?

The first two that come to mind are VSCO and 500px, two creative networks in the photo sharing world that haven’t quite made the leap to being social networks and mainstream recognition (and who am I to say that they want to)? Each has raised a fair amount of money, and each has undertaken efforts recently to layer in more “social” features that make their products more accessible to a wider audience, as VSCO launched Collections and 500px revamped its product entirely. Aside from those two, Fleck is another photo sharing app that is trying to tap into what Instagram felt like during its earliest stages as a creative network.

There are a handful of other startups on my radar which have launched new tools to inspire creativity. SUPER, Byte, and Trio are just a few products focusing on mixed media of sorts. New Hive is tapping into the notion that a web page in and of itself can be a form of artwork. And there’s Beme which seeks to inspire people to be creative by altering the way they share (no video previews) and interact with video content (selfie reactions).

It remains to be seen which, if any, of these creative networks will break through to be the next major social network. I will certainly be watching each carefully to learn how they grow and evolve over time. Moreover, if you’re working on a product in this realm, I’d love to hear about it, so please get in touch!