Friendship by design: the next big features in social networks.
In my last post, I asked why social media wasn’t working. As naturally social animals, humans had lived in close-knit communities for millennia, allowing stable and enduring relationships to flourish. However, fundamental shifts occurred. People no longer lived where they grew up and the unstoppable rise of the internet meant that relationships were not as effortless as they once were.
For a while, the rise of social media seemed to fill this gap.
…But not quite.
Don’t get me wrong, social media is wonderful at many things. How else would you appreciate my awesome, carefully curated, Insta-life? However, for those enduring, stable, deep relationships that make such a difference — I don’t think it’s pulling its weight.
There’s an opportunity for a new platform that does and in this post, I’m going to dive into three features that I believe will be core:
1. Limit the number of ‘friends’’
2. Enable positive activity ❤
3. Facilitate IRL engagement
1. Limit the number of ‘friends’
Relationships are hard work. They take time and effort and research shows they are subject to the law of diminishing returns¹, which is why I believe that a new social network should limit the number of connections a user can make.
But where should we limit it at? Luckily, I’ve done some research and found that there are two points (based on personal interactions and group interactions) for such ceilings: I have termed these points the Village and the Network limit:
The first is the Village — which derives from interpersonal behaviours:
The Village Limit is based on optimising personal relationships: it is the number of “stable inter-personal relationships” that humans can reasonably maintain, which is pinned 30 to 50 people per individual².
I believe a social network that sets out to be truly game changer will draw their line at the Village Limit and will help users to engage with their core relationships as a result.
However, restrictions can be scary stuff. For the more faint-hearted out there, there is a second limit worth using, although admittedly less exciting in my mind. This derives from group behaviours:
The Network limit is based on optimising group structures: it is the upmost number for a community - 148 people².Go over this number and you have to but in formal structures, systems, rules to maintain social cohestion.”²
In short, stay within this number and peer pressure keeps you honest. Creep above this and the trolls start to appear.
Who’s working on this already?
There are notable ‘micro-networks’ already developing (N.B. I’m focusing on those for personal relationships, rather than connecting like-minded people, such as Treadie).
Family networks, naturally, are a clear use case for this. The Scottish-born Kindaba is focusing on exactly this. Shaped by the team’s understanding that “communicating with our loved ones has become more disconnected and difficult”³ they are developing a defined, safe, private, and accessible place.
It’s still in limited preview release at the moment but might this be the evolution of the Whatsapp family chat?
Focused on the friendship side is Basement, a recent Y-Combinator graduate, who are looking to get right what Path attempted a few years back.
As far as currently reported (only US mobiles can currently sign), Basement limits users to 20 friends on the platform and is aimed at close friends and family⁴. Watch this space.
2. Enable positive activity ❤
My second feature focuses on the positive: help your users to be good to each other.
I know. It sounds a little millennial but we all know it feels good to be good (both at an emotional level and a physical one — a study on altruism indeed found health benefits in generous behaviour)⁵.
Positive deeds benefit both the giver and receiver, offering a uniquely beneficial interaction and positive engagement for your platform.
In addition to this, by steering the community towards the positive, it may serve to reduce some of the well-documented issues of social media: from negative commentaries to bullying, to trolling, to crime.
Who’s working on this?
Thinking of purposeful positive experiences, Koya is a true feel-good idea. It allows you to send an act of kindness to anywhere in the world. Got a friend in Australia going through a tough time? Buy them a surprise coffee from their local cafe.
Using a different mechanism is Good Today. The ‘Netflix for charity’ has nailed the mechanism for effortless yet engaged giving: pick between two charities each day and decide which one to give 25¢.
Both Good Today and Koya focus on enabling small yet regular interactions, helping their users to have a positive impact at very little cost. It’s easy to scoff at the notion of such features but then again, a few years ago the idea that plastic straws or disposable coffee cups would be taboo was farfetched as well.
People like to be good — just make it easy for them.
3. Facilitating IRL engagement
Finally, we come to moving engagement from inside a platform into the real world. To explain, let’s look at Facebook Memories a.k.a. Facebook’s clone of Timehop.
When I was still on said-platform, I would screenshot every time I was notified of such a ‘memory’ and send it immediately to the relevant co-conspirator. Why? I was charmed by the personalised content and nostalgic nudge.
In a similar vein, a friend recently recounted (thank you Ed Grieg-Gran) how a group had set up multiple location-alerts in the Find My Friends app to notify them when others were serendipitously close, facilitating spontaneous pub sessions. As they say, proximity is everything.
Both of these features enabled IRL engagement with friends. It seems counter-intuitive at first (and in for Facebook was probably not intentional), however, they became sticky because they required minimum effort from the user but provided a significant upside.
Who’s working on this?
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Snapchat is testing a very relevant feature: Status.
This feature gives users the option to share their activity — and therefore intention — as well as their location to SnapMaps. The feature then allows users to differentiate between their friend being at home but ill, or at home, bored, and wanting to go out.
Another interesting play is Membit, a photo-sharing app. It allows pictures to be viewed in the very location they were captured — combining physical location with online activity. This use of geolocation opens up new avenues of play between real life and online and I personally expect to see more of this over the next couple of years.
For me it comes down to: how can your network recreate the feeling of interacting with someone as often and as effortlessly — from anywhere in the world — as you would if they lived next door?
So there you are. My must-have features for supporting enduring and deeper relationships. The first is part of the fundamental architecture of a network’s structure; the second is a design principle for interactions; the final forces you to consider the end result you are trying to accomplish. Together, I believe they will return high engagement and satisfaction with your platform.
If you’re building, planning, or simply observing something along these lines, then get in touch at email@example.com.
Alternatively, tweet me nice things @phoebescriven.
Until then -
- The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation, Research Gate,
- Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size and language in humans R.I.M., UCL
- YC-backed Basement is a social network for close friends only, Techcrunch
- Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good, Stephen G. Post