Building an Elephant

Solon Teal
14 min readAug 17, 2021
A giant elephant
Photo by Joaquín Rivero on Unsplash

T̶L̶D̶R̶:̶ ̶I̶’̶m̶ ̶b̶u̶i̶l̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶T̶a̶l̶k̶ ̶S̶o̶c̶i̶a̶l̶,̶ ̶a̶ ̶s̶o̶c̶i̶a̶l̶ ̶v̶i̶d̶e̶o̶ ̶p̶l̶a̶t̶f̶o̶r̶m̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶m̶a̶g̶i̶c̶a̶l̶ ̶h̶u̶m̶a̶n̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶v̶e̶r̶s̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶s̶.̶ ̶S̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶o̶r̶e̶ ̶b̶e̶l̶i̶e̶f̶s̶ ̶i̶n̶f̶o̶r̶m̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶w̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶w̶e̶’̶r̶e̶ ̶b̶u̶i̶l̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶i̶n̶c̶l̶u̶d̶e̶. 2022 Update: I’ve moved on from Talk Social, and I wish it the best! All of these things are informing what I’m working on next.

  • Everyone has a digital social life: No matter your age, a meaningful amount of your social life has likely moved online. I have an ever increasing number of meaningful friends that I’ve never met in person (including my co-founder). If it hasn’t yet — it will.
  • Software can “scale” intimacy: We are just scratching the surface of software facilitated interactions and relationships — especially those that are a hybrid of human and machine facilitated. Performative social media is the lead up to a participatory social experience paradigm.
  • Conversations require a catalyst: Game theory is a critical aspect of social interactions. Someone needs to make a first move in order for vulnerability and connection to occur. Talk Social helps by actively making that first move. We set the tone, so you can be yourself.
  • Connection is critical for our future: Scaling intimate and vulnerable spaces — especially when considering our human diversity of 8 billion humans— is an existential need for future human flourishing.
  • We need more social play: Novelty and play are critical components for human relationships. We are most alive when with humans we love — being social should be fun and the highlight of our day.
  • Digital experience design will be huge: Digital social experience design (not to be confused with UX) is an art form in its early stages. We’ve had thousands of years to define what a good in-person host is, but we have the opportunity to begin to define what a spectacular digital host looks like. Creating a welcoming, designed space online is the next frontier.

Since the end of 2017 I’ve been obsessed with manifesting a digital social club, with individual, trusted humans at the center.

It all started with a spontaneous idea incubation in 2017 called Worlds Collide through which you would meet 4–5 strangers over a one hour breakfast or lunch. Identities would be completely hidden beyond your initials, and — importantly — there was no official “facilitator.” However, there would be a sealed envelope on the table that contained the rules, instructions, and framing for the experience. Someone would be assigned to open the envelope and loosely “host,” but they weren’t responsible for the outcome.

Early prototypes for Worlds Collide experiences
An early prototype of a Worlds Collide experience

Sometimes there were clues about the people you were meeting (“You’ll really like the person with the initials AD”), sometimes guest appearances. After the interaction, you would discover why you had been matched with your dining partners — sometimes highly relevant professional connections, sometimes completely random. Many friendships, business partnerships, and other relationships that we probably aren’t even ware of came out of it. Permeating the entire experience was a feeling of deep spontaneity and connection — and it kept bringing people back.

I and my then-cofounder Chris Deutsch knew that we had stumbled across *something* but after lots of testing, interviews, and soul searching we realized that the cultural timing and existing infrastructure wasn’t right for Worlds Collide to really manifest in the way we wanted it to. There’s more to that story, but for the sake of this story the seed of that “something” was planted in me and has been growing ever since. How powerful would it be if we could all have magical connective social experiences with anyone in the world at the drop of a hat? To “hack serendipity.”

Throughout the subsequent years and across various tests, and iterations to understand this “something,” I have consistently struggled to simply describe what that thing we saw back then(always critical for anyone building something new). I’m increasingly confident that instead of the architect I’m more a servant to the idea and mission. I’m just along for the ride. However, despite this how-to-name-it conundrum, that “something” is even more alive and well, and I’m as confident as ever about this path (a classic mix of supreme entrepreneurial overconfidence laced with deep existential concern and doubt).

So, how would I describe what the ultimate vision of what I’m working on is? In two ways:

  1. It’s a social adventure game
  2. It’s an elephant

It’s a social adventure game

While this description inevitably launches a discussion of 30 minutes that generally ends with a “huh, maybe that could work,” I do believe it’s accurate. And, it’s the one that I as a former-introvert-now-ambivert-maybe-never-an-introvert am most excited by. Here’s a quick run down.

Social is supposed to be fun

What’s the point if we can’t have fun is one of my favorite pieces ever written by the late David Graeber. In it, he talks about how in our efforts to understand animals and nature we too often ascribe some transactional or strategic purpose to all of their interactions — forgetting that, often, all animals just want to play. This is especially true for humans, as we’re especially social. He writes:

“To exercise one’s capacities to their fullest extent is to take pleasure in one’s own existence, and with sociable creatures, such pleasures are proportionally magnified when performed in company.”

Too often in our current online social environments even when we are playing, or being goofy and silly, it is recorded in solitude and enjoyed by an invisible digital audience. Play requires everyone to be equally present and participate. It requires real time, synchronous interactions — and despite the wave of ‘audio only’ solutions, social play that promotes connection and authenticity really benefits from synchronous video. It’s not a requirement, but if it’s an option we should embrace it more.

Play also benefits from clear contextual rules and expectations. I see a lack of defined ‘low stakes, low transactional’ spaces, which reduces the opportunity for spontaneous play. In a world that is increasingly capitalizing on our engagement and freetime (e.g. monetizing our “passions”) and relentlessly obsessed with self improvement and positivity, it becomes easy to pressure ourselves to be hyper transactional (“there needs to be a point to this interaction”) or engage in high stakes activity (“I really need this conversation to go well if I want to have a friend/significant other/employer/etc”). Yes, social status is a big driver of socialization, but so are things like being understood and acknowledged for the imperfect beings that we all are. Needing to portray a specific persona or position ourselves in a way to be transactionally successful is not just exhausting but dehumanizing. Purposeful play is a must if we want to make real connections and relationships.

Exciting social adventures await us across humanity

Many of us dream of being adventurers or being the “first” to do something. Increasingly, our notion of adventure and uniqueness is moving digital and will radically change. Partly because historically the “first” person often wasn’t really the “first” (e.g. Christopher Columbus and a long litany of similar historical not-actual-firsts) but also because what is happening online can be wildly different from . The internet has turbocharged this — being the first person amongst the 5 billion and counting humans that use the internet is statistically a challenge. The rise of NFTs highlights the appeal of uniqueness. This isn’t to say that we can’t still have exciting adventures. If anything, I think our true adventure is just getting started — understanding humanity for who we really are.

To prognosticate, our future adventures may be those in which we interact and engage with people who are fundamentally different from us. Synchronously interacting with them in a safe way, with clear social rules is something that can allow us to begin to understand one another. While we all think of ourselves as a model human on some level, someone somewhere is as put off by us as we are by them. Looking at the world now, that’s mutual distaste is leading to radicalization and destabilizations. That can’t sustainably continue in a world that is only going to get even more connected.

These future adventures would therefore be one in which we gear up like a heroic character and interact with people radically different from us on various dimensions from somewhere across humanity. They could be something like convergence/divergence experiences wherein a small group of strangers are sorted into a social scenario. Each of them have a consistent characteristic to enable a level of trust (perhaps a very similar life path), but everything else is as different as possible (gender, political beliefs, number of siblings, etc). Like a quest, they would be tasked (by themselves, or perhaps a ‘game engine’) with a successful interaction with their opposite. Enforceable rules would promote some level of behavior and reduce the all-to-common troll experience we have online. We’ll become real students of humanity and actual truth-seekers. After all, if we want to change the world we need to first understand the ideas held by others in our current world.

We can never stop forming new relationships

Relationship columnist Dan Savage said: “every relationship you are in will fail, until one doesn’t.” That quote lives fully rent free in my head whenever a cherished relationship changes because of life stage, location, etc. As we age, we all fall out of touch with people we knew when we were younger — the number of relationships we have peak when we are 25. We lack many of the daily interactions that made up so many of our loose connection relationships (especially with Covid which has “Erased entire categories of friends”). Covid has also catalyzed a significant movement of people, upending existing in-person relationships — 10% of Americans have moved in some way according to Pew. Once we begin to have children, enter long term relationships, get new jobs, pass away…our relationships become looser and looser.

This becomes a profound challenge when we have fallen out of social shape and suddenly need that social structure — and the skills to build them. Unfortunately, in those moments, we can suddenly have a formerly critical relationship entirely disappear with nothing to fill the void. If a friend moves away, hopefully we have other people we can spend time with. If we need a new job, hopefully we know someone who works where we want to work. If we need someone to have a good conversation with, hopefully that’s accessible. Trust is fundamental to all of those needs, and creating trust time. Needs for more trusted relationships aren’t just abstract needs, but are becoming increasingly urgent for millions of Americans every day. Only 13% of Americans report having 10+ close friends, down from 33% 30 years ago. 50% of adult Americans haven’t made a new friend in the last 5 years. While this is partly a uniquely American phenomenon, there are parallels across most heavily digitized countries.

Such a relationship task that is never ending — a Sisyphean task even — requires that the journey be satisfying. Otherwise, maintaining focus and discipline becomes incredibly difficult. Like Peloton, Soul Cycle, and other modern workout communities, making the process itself an experience helps us forget that we’re working on an arduous task. Why should anyone keep using dating apps or attend networking/friend making events if the actual process isn’t enjoyable? Ask anyone who is looking for a new relationship and they’re likely to share deep existential struggles and frustration. In a world of increasing distractions, often algorithmically calibrated to grab our attention we should demand better experiences on our social journey — we never know how long it may last between checkpoints.

Technology can actually increase intimacy

Up until 2019 I was generally dogmatic that social had to be in person. The joys of designing and facilitating an experience where you can palpably feel the human energy change is an intense hit of oxytocin. I’ve since become open to instances where I think digital interactions can not just equal but be better than IRL interactions. For example, if you’re hosting a party you can’t change the theme, decorations, and venue in milliseconds if a certain collection of guests arrive — you can do that digitally. Furthermore, we often have one-off conversations resulting in an insight or realization — how powerful would it be if the next time we were social we met someone that had recently had that same epiphany, and we could discuss it together. Imagine if we were to apply the digital lens to all of our social gatherings and really rethink the purpose of each. How can we achieve the social purpose, while only leveraging digital tools?

Inversely, trying to recreate IRL experiences in the same way online leads to failure. We’ve seen from the pandemic that putting 15 people on a video call for an unorganized happy hour is not satisfying. For example, eye gazing and physical touch are incredibly powerful tools for IRL connection events — they rapidly create intimacy and trust. They generally fail online, however…so what can replace them? Approaching this from a digital-only perspective may lead to equivalent, digital native tools to promote trust like mutually sharing private instagram DMs, browser history, or other generally hidden information. We need to enable the design of new interactions and experiences that are digitally native that in no way could ever be replicated online. That’s what the social adventure game of the future has to look like.

It’s an Elephant

The second way to describe what I’m building is that “we’re building an elephant.” This description was inspired by The Blind Men and the Elephant, an old Indian fable:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear. (Wikipedia)

In some versions of the fable all the participants begin fighting claiming that only their interpretation is correct. In others, the story simply ends, the point having been made: They are all correct…and all wrong. The elephant is greater than the sum of its parts; it’s an interconnected system. Any well-designed social platform inevitably becomes “an elephant,” with an expansive and multifaceted experience ripe for interpretation.

Whenever we talk about human social we need to acknowledge how truly complex it is. Our social systems are elephants — we’re all always reading into the social actions of others, developing our best read of what they’re really saying, and then sharing our reaction which they in turn need to interpret. “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior,” is a perfect encapsulation of this reality. There are always multiple levels to social, most of them obscured to everyone except the primary actor.

Social interactions need a catalyzer

This lack of clarity goes beyond individual actions, and lives in the realm of social dynamics and unspoken cultural rules. Meeting a recruiter for a coffee isn’t really about the coffee, and going to dinner with a date isn’t really about the food. The things that we do with others in social spaces is often simply an excuse to connect or get to know someone else better. Shared activities give us the permission to be present with other humans and to feel real connection. They also allow us the ability to interact beyond what the rules of engagement might be in a scenario simply dedicated to the real social purpose. Without the coffee, talking with a recruiter (or a date) would be a grueling interview. Without a team offsite, we would be constrained to talk about the same work projects and small talk that fill so many of our workplaces. Without the shared family activity or tradition, there would be less structure to help navigate the social dynamics of adult children and parents interacting in the same home. The list goes on.

A good friend of mine often talks about the importance of courage, especially when designing social experiences. When I interviewed her for this project, she shared:

Designers of spaces need to bring their full self. That takes a lot of courage, especially as there’s often a lot of self-doubt with design. However, your courage is not just important, it is critical because it allows others to have courage. Vulnerability invites vulnerability.

We see this dynamic at parties regularly. If everyone at a party is speaking in low, hushed voices then anyone new to the party will reflect the same behavior. However, if you enter a party and if even one person is already dancing and singing on the table (and everyone else is talking with quiet voices), we all instantly intuit a bit of what is socially acceptable. If we are coming with anything between a hushed voice and a tabletop dance we will be just fine. Really good experience designers will implicitly enable those behaviors, however, so they aren’t dependent on someone being more courageous than others. This is a critical part of what future solutions must do — help set the tone and rules so that you know with clarity your expectations.

Purpose is the difference between the parts and the whole

The best social interactions — those that deliver on real, authentic human connection — are multi-purpose, slightly ragged, and are greater than the sum of their parts. They don’t just have novelty or a shared activity, but they are designed with an explicit purpose. Priya Parker outlines this concept over and over in her seminal book, the Art of Gathering:

The purpose of your gathering is more than an inspiring concept. It is a tool, a filter that helps you determine all the details, grand and trivial. To gather is to make choices after choice: place, time, food, forks, agenda, topics, speakers. Virtually every choice will be easier to make when you know why you’re gathering, and especially when that why is particular, interesting, and even provocative. Make purpose your bouncer.

Purposeful events have moment(s) of catalytic energy that allows them to transcend beyond the simple conversations of “name, rank, serial number,” to dynamic energy and movement. Serendipity plays a key role here, as well as context generation — how quickly can we understand the various things that are important to another person so that we know where to actually begin connecting? Great moments in conversation and relationships happen when two people each grab the conversational “tail” and have a different perspective of what it is. Future social solutions will just provide the object, and let participants drive the conversation themselves.

Whether it’s a social adventure game or an elephant, it’s critical to emphasize the importance of the human element to all this. Creators of trusted and facilitated spaces are artists of human experience and emotion. However, unlike most other modalities of art, these creators are only half of the equation. The participants are a critical requirement for the manifestation of the art. Run the same experience hundreds of times with different people and you’ll get hundreds of unique flavored outcomes.

Given the way that the 2020’s have kicked off, I think we’re all ready for something new. I’m excited for whatever we co-create together.



Solon Teal

social designer. writer. founder. dad. ✌️❤️