Social’s Defining Decade: The Revival of Horizontal Platforms and More

Madison McIlwain
6 min readApr 10, 2023

Gen-Z uses TikTok for search more than Google. Let that sink in. Over the past 20 years, many challengers have tried to surpass Google in the battle for search, but none have succeeded. Now, with the unlocking of Chat-GPT as another competing search experience, the search conversation is back in the forefront of our minds. Perhaps the most it has been since the days of Yahoo vs Google. While this isn’t a piece on generative AI and the future of search, the search conversation suggests a paradigm shift in consumer behavior on the web. I am excited about how search and general consumer behavior patterns are actively evolving into the next wave of consumer-social experiences.

If we look back, the first 23 years of this millennium have taught us that horizontal platforms win. They win through aggregated demand, social graph synergies which unlock network effects, and content you can’t get anywhere else. The time has come for a new horizontal platform as we firmly supplant ourselves into the third decade of social, or what some are calling “collective” media.

Over the next three weeks, I’ll be dropping micro-theses about how this decade will define consumer-social, the importance specifically of horizontal social and what it might mean for consumers, platforms, and businesses. Today’s topic: That’s Niche

The rise of modern friends has made people feel increasingly comfortable opening up in digital first spaces that translate to IRL (in real life). People under 30 use their niches as bridges to real world connection. In 2022, I came across Michelle Fang on Twitter, a woman opening a co-living house in my neighborhood in SF. I had been trying to meet more young innovators in SF (something that has been hard to do organically since COVID). I dm’d Michelle and she was up to meet IRL! We had a great first lunch at Souvla. From there, we decided to host an event together for International Women’s Month in 2022. Fast-forward, Michelle and mine’s digital first friendships flourished and cemented even deeper where she is now head of community for The Room Podcast and head of social at a defy portfolio company, Safara.

On the left: original DM. On the right: A past TRP event.

This cold outreach, turned friendship, turned colleague was made possible by Twitter’s algorithm and its understanding of my physical location and tech, a niche that is not necessarily obscure. Whether it be something as mainstream as tech culture, the avid Harry Potter fandoms, or nail art obsessions, the pervasion of niche cultures finding a home on horizontal layered platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and others led us to believe that the niche itself could be a platform. Over the past 5 years, this compounded the growth of vertical-focused, affinity-based social media apps. The group chat or Facebook group turned into the platform itself.

Goodreads and Strava serve as two stand out examples of vertical focused consumer-social platforms that have broken out of this mold. Goodreads, a platform for book lovers, is unique in that it offers features such as book reviews, ratings, and book clubs that cater to a specific audience. This focus on the book-loving community has earned Goodreads over 90 million users as of 2022. (Shockingly up 9x since its acquisition by Amazon in 2013) Similarly, Strava is a social platform for runners and cyclists that allows users to track and share their workouts with like-minded individuals. Strava’s focus on fitness enthusiasts has led to over 100 million registered users as of 2022. Unfortunately, the majority of vertical platforms do not turn into meaningful hubs for sustained consumer longevity and buying power; I don’t think they will. What vertical social taught us is people might come initially for the niche, but they truly stay for incremental discovery and community. This is a prerequisite for most venture scale exits.

For interactive doc, click here.

Today, we have a gap in the market for consumer-social. We need a new horizontal platform that celebrates the weird, the quirky, the thing your friend group says, ““ok stop we are done hearing you talk about this!”” For example, #booktok has taken over Tiktok and is a viral sensation within the platform with the hashtag garnering over 122 billion views. The beauty of the niche is everyone has one….and if you don’t want to tell me what it is, that’s ok! That may even be the point and power of horizontal distribution. Some of these niches are on a varying level of mainstream to truly countercultural, however there are homes for them all in one platform. I believe we’re all a collective of niches genuinely looking for community online and offline to feel known and seen. There is magic in realizing that in this little corner of the internet about a million other people also are obsessed with A Court of Thorn and Roses or (#ACOTAR) on Tiktok.

The dialectic between our desire to be an individual, yet a part of a collective experience, is supercharged through horizontal platforms. Living into those layers of niche belonging, through a digital-first space, will unlock the next foundational platform for connection and community. Landing, who recently launched their app experience which celebrates your niche with their spaces is a prime example of a challenger in the space against traditional consumer social. I can take my #booktok favorites and commune with those super fans within their “Book Nook” space.

On the left, #booktok. On the right, landing’s BookNook.

The rise of TikTok as a search tool for Gen-Z users and the emergence of Chat-GPT as a new search experience signal a paradigm shift in consumer behavior on the web. As we enter the third decade of social media, it’s becoming increasingly clear that horizontal platforms that enable niche communities and provide opportunities for incremental discovery and community-building are the future of consumer-social experiences. While there have been many attempts to create vertical-focused, affinity-based social media apps, very few have been able to sustain consumer longevity and buying power. And in turn, have struggled to achieve meaningful venture scale exits.

Horizontal social platforms celebrate the weird, the quirky, and the niche interests that people are passionate about, while also providing a sense of belonging and connection across the collective. The magic of the internet lies in its ability to connect people from all walks of life, and the next foundational platform for connection and community will undoubtedly be one that fosters a sense of belonging and celebrates the diversity of human interests and experiences. Which platforms should I be tracking as a part of this defining decade?

Cheers 🥂

Madison

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Madison McIlwain

Currently investing as a member of the @defyvc team. Passionate about technology enabling the next wave of e-commerce for more efficient supply chains.