Composite networks

Robert Gaal
May 8 · 7 min read

The state of online relationships

We’re tired of adding people to our network only to realize that we don’t know who they are anymore.

The consultant you met at a conference six years ago that added you on LinkedIn. That friend from your hometown on Facebook. That person with the thing about the thing on Twitter.

There is no bulk-unfollow.

This is known as context collapse. We lose familiarity with our network so we lose interest in it entirely.

When social platforms encourage you to add as many people as you want in an attempt to increase your social status, this happens.

To counter this effect, we can seek out private, curated, verifiable networks. They don’t have publicly searchable profiles. They don’t keep your posts around for years and years. They don’t even have news feeds.

They’re often a lot smaller in size too, a lot more similar to your offline social groups. The size of the Dunbar number, essentially.

They're a WhatsApp, Telegram or Twitter DM group. A finstagram. A Slack or Discord community. A curated newsletter.

Private is eating social.

Composing your group

These kinds of social networks behave more like tools that help you build your inner circle.

  1. Their tool allows you to compose small groups of people who share the same context.
  2. Their platform is composed of a large number of these smaller groups whose members overlap.

Hence, they’re composite networks.

Contrary to social networks, composite networks value a high degree of trust between members. You share a mission, values or interest that prevents you from losing context.

A composite network also allows us to change identity, depending on who I what value I can derive or add to a group. It’s a multifaceted network. My profile or posts, after all, aren’t shared with just everyone.

Opportunities for trust

Social networks

For most of the public-focused social networks to remain relevant, they have to transform into composite networks.

Facebook is betting the company on it. Groups are its future.

“If we do this well, we can create platforms for private sharing that could be even more important to people than the platforms we’ve already built to help people share and connect more openly.”

Mark Zuckerberg

Instagram is his best defense yet. The new Close Friends feature in particular is a strong move to replace finstagrams with a curated, private circle of friends.

Sound familiar? As a former Googler, it pains me to say that the dream of Google+ is alive today at Facebook. The difference is that Facebook is adding curation to useful features like Stories, instead of forcing you to take social actions in a suite of private products.

How much winning “the social war” matters to your organization is, ultimately, irrelevant.

TikTok, meanwhile, is heading in the opposite direction with a clear focus on algorithmic discovery. YouTube, but for short videos.

Snap, the smartest yet somehow the least financially viable entity in the room, remains focused on communication.

“When we started Snapchat, it was clear that we wouldn’t stand a chance as a social media company. That’s because the social media space was already dominated by Facebook.

Fortunately, we never wanted to be a social media company.

Snapchat was built to be the fastest way to communicate, and delivering our core product value is what has allowed us to innovate in many value-add areas like Stories, Memories, Maps and more.”

Evan Spiegel

Snapchat is not a social network. Perhaps not even just a camera company. It’s a valuable composite network.

There’s a real opportunity for Twitter to act less like a “town square” but more like a composite network. Composite networks, after all, allow you to have “healthy conversations” in a private group without interference and harassment.

There are also new networks with traction like Peach or Island. That Path relaunch, the O.G. of composite networks, also doesn’t sound so bad right now either.

Professional networks

LinkedIn has focused on the breadth of the network. The more resumes their network consists of, the easier it is to sell access to them.

This prevents them from becoming a composite network, where groups form on the basis of real verifiable relationships.

Ironically, most advice on building meaningful networks always comes from a professional context. That audience is incredibly interested in building validated, curated, and trusted network. The platform that was built to service them, however, has one big problem:

You can’t build meaningful groups with people you don’t really trust.

Community messengers

If there’s a community, there’s a 90% chance it connects via real-time chat somewhere.

Slack seems to have won here, and Slack communities are abundant. But the platform doesn’t service them easily. By focusing on enterprise sales, Slack hides most of its community features behind subscriptions too expensive for any single community organizer to get behind.

This allows Discord and Spectrum to pick up their, uh, slack.

Private messengers

Then there are the private messengers like WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage, or just plain SMS. In 2015, they’ve overtaken social networks in size already.

Private messengers are the biggest threat to social networks today. The battle is won.

They just don’t allow you to curate and build groups with shared interests that well. Not if you need to manually add someone to your address book using your phone number.

That’s a discoverability problem we’ll talk more about in a bit.

Private broadcasting

Email is having its second (third, fourth?) moment in the spotlight. This time as a composite network. Tools like Revue and others have made it incredibly easy to build a community on your terms. You can even charge for access if you like.

Paid access like that is also more common on Twitch and on Youtube, sometimes with help from Patreon. Meanwhile, most podcast creators still seem to focus on an ad-supported public broadcast model.

More creators are however realizing that news can be a conversation instead. Composite networks are a way for them to regain intimacy with fans, and make their community less one-directional.

One small problem

The thing that’s holding composite networks back is limited virality.

Simply put:

  1. Small groups have limited reach.
  2. You can’t discover a private group unless you’re invited to it.

There are some signs of early solutions to this problem.

  • Inviting people 1-on-1 to private groups, perhaps someone you’ve just met in a different group, is pretty common. WhatsApp clearly doesn’t focus on this at the moment. Slack, however, allows you to create private channels and invite anyone pretty easily.
  • WhatsApp does allow users to share messages between groups. This enables some virality for group content at least.
  • Snapcodes and Instagram Nametag allows you to share your profile with a real-life network, like classmates. Since trust often is enabled by face-to-face interactions, you could imagine groups being formed in similar ways.
  • Perhaps it’s also okay for a group to be publicly visible, yet only allow access once you’ve been accepted or “voted in”. Platforms like Meetup or Facebook enable this curation already.
  • Intros and referrals are a very common social concept. It’s how we date, find a doctor, get a job, and generally discover new contacts to add to our trusted group. In a professional context, good etiquette for intros becomes a superpower. Perhaps there’s a way to enable that same behavior to grow a group on a composite network. (It’s why I’m building Cooper.)

For composite networks to grow they’ll each have to find their version of the hashtag, retweet, the discovery tab, or news feed.

Your turn

When Flickr was at its peak in 2006, I remember thinking that surely we had arrived at some sort of endpoint for social networks.

Its tags were black holes of entertainment. Finding and following friends was inspiring instead of noisy. The comments sections were still nice. It felt worth paying a monthly subscription for.

It felt cozy. “Gezellig”, even.

Fast forward about 10 years, and take a look at how far social networks have come. Not always for the better, but with an impact you couldn’t imagine in 2006.

Composite networks are ways we can build better relationships for ourselves online. There’s an opportunity to use the tools available to curate your own group based on trust and shared values. Or to build the tools you need to do it.

What are the networks, on- or offline, that you’re a part of? How could they be better in a composite network?

Go build yours.


Thanks to Anarghya Vardhana, Daniel Gulati, Emiel van Liere, Esteban Garcia, Garry Tan, Holly Habstritt Gaal, Kanyi Maqubela, Koen Bok, Micha Hernandez van Leuffen, Scott Belsky, and Soleio Cuervo for adding feedback to this article.

Robert Gaal

Written by

Founder of Cooper (cooper.app), a soon-to-be-launched trusted professional network. Previously product manager at Google and founder of Wakoopa and Karma.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade