Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian recently warned that the tech industry has hit “peak social”, causing a migration away from large social networks. Instead, people increasingly want to belong to smaller communities of like-minded people. According to Ohanian, users of larger networks feel that their voices are being drowned out, something we identified earlier as “context collapse”. This explains the backlash against networks like Facebook.
According to the famous anthropologist Robin Dunbar, humans can have no more than 150 meaningful social relationships (“Dunbar’s number”). Large social networks like Facebook neglect this law, since they turn users into an online mass, connected but anonymous, according to famous social-media critic Jaron Lanier. This leads to isolated users rather than meaningful relations. And thus, while especially younger generations are digital natives whose interactions with their friends largely take place online, they are turning to more meaningful ways to engage with them. Hence, online chatrooms, networks, and messaging apps are valuable when offering this “communal” feature to users: a way to connect meaningfully to others. As a result, we see a rise of online communities that give users a sense of belonging by bringing together those with common values and interests.
Although Reddit enables users to create smaller communities online, Ohanian named Telegram and Discord as the two currently most prominent examples of these new, more tailored platforms (although there are also other social network alternatives that are gaining relevance). Both Telegram and Discord allow users to create groups and channels based on interests. Telegram is a messaging app with large active chat rooms, similar to those of the ‘90s. Although Telegram has only been around for a few years, it has seen significant traction over the last year; it has grown over 50% in 2018. Discord offers chat function, a VoIP function and the possibility of screen sharing. It started as a gaming chat service but was soon co-opted by a plethora of other online communities, serving the same purpose that online forums once did, connecting users on a wide variety of topics of interest. The startup’s user base has tripled in 2018. These communities could make up the next generation of social engagement, facilitated by formats offering shared media experiences.