I’ve been interested in ‘social networks’ for as long as I can remember and like any startup enthusiast, I spend a lot of time keeping a tab on what’s happening in the space and occasionally, zoom out to map the learnings — to see if I can come up with a framework or a mental model that can be relied on to study the growing number of startups in the space.
For instance, Eugenie Wei’s ‘Status as a Service’ answers several questions we have about social networks — including why some scale to house billions of users across different cultures & countries and some fail to take off after some point.
In here, I’m attempting to come with a tenet of my own — albeit on a different dimension to help us identify:
a) What we’re missing in the current social networking space,
b) What can be built in the future, and
c) If you’re trying to build one, what should you consider?
Before getting any further, I stand on the shoulders of many giants and borrow their ideas to put together the piece.
‘Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.’– Chuck Palahniuk.
We can draw and map what’s happening and whatever can happen in the social space by connecting the Social Circles — in different contexts.
Social Circles — are the fundamental structure that I use to build the framework and connect the dots. While it’s not entirely new, let me clear it a bit before we get any further. From the perspective of social networks, there are only two Social Circles that can exist with “You” at their center.
I. Known People:
We all have a social circle of known people. Family, friends, colleagues, and other people you’ve known personally or professionally fall within this space.
II. Interesting People:
Next up, you would like to connect with unknown people that are aligned with your interests. While they aren’t known yet, you’ll have an intention of knowing them. They all make up the Circle of ‘Interesting People’.
The interesting thing to note is, the Circle of Interesting People isn’t just going to have people that you find relevant or interesting in some context (professional, personal, hobbies, etc.) but it’ll also have the rest (i.e., everyone else).
But social networks make it easy for you to connect with the ones that you want to — via algorithmic feed, recommendations, filters, and more.
Any social network can either connect you to any one of the Social Circles or both of them. To put it another way, a social network can connect ‘You’ with the circle of Known People or circle of Interesting People, or both. If we draw the Social Circles with you at their center, we’ll end up with:
Now that we’ve defined the Social Circles, let’s try to connect them. This is where the Context begins and hopefully gets interesting.
We can simply define a social network by tracing the ‘Social Circles’ it tries to connect along with the ‘Context’.
Rather than trying to explain what I just said in more words, I prefer to show some examples and add notes to them. Perhaps, you’ll get more clarity yourself.
What Can Exist
Before getting into the examples, we need to group them. To put it simply, there can only exist three Categories of social networks.
- Category 1: Connecting You to Known People.
- Category 2: Connecting You to Interesting People.
- Category 3: Connecting You to both Known and Interesting People.
Now let’s look at each category with a few examples.
Category 1: Connecting You to Known People
This is the simplest hop as it connects You with the first Social Circle, that is, Known People. Several social apps we use regularly tend to fall in this category.
WhatsApp is a classic example of a social app that connects you with the Known People in the Context of communication.
Splitwise connects you with Known people in the context of money. You can connect with your friends, roommates, family to share expenses and split the money. You can create groups as well. It’s not a strictly social app if you view it from the traditional lens but the point of defining Social Circles and working on this post is to think beyond what’s widely accepted as a social app .
Sidenote: Venmo wouldn’t fall in this category as it’s used to send money to anyone, not just to your friends/family.
Category 2: Connecting You to Interesting People
The next set of social apps connects you to Interesting People you would want to know and meet. Let’s look at some examples.
Meetup’s line is ‘find your people’. As a user, you simply discover, follow and become part of groups of relevant people who have the same interests as yours.
You’re connecting with Interesting People that you wouldn’t have been able to without Meetup. Here the context is broad and depends on the user. A user can use Meetup to connect with relevant people — no matter whatever their interest is.
Tinder, of course, connects you with people you want to meet. And, the context here is “dating” which is absolutely different from Meetup. Tinder differs in one more dimension as well — connections. You are connecting with one person at a time; not a group of people.
Category 3: Connecting You to Known People and Interesting People
Last, we have a set of social networks that goes all the way through. I.e., with Category 3 networks, you can connect with both Known People and Interesting People.
Social networks in this category will have catalysts (or growth loops) to accelerate your connections and engagements with people from both the Social Circles. Examples include #hashtags, People You May Know, Who to Follow, and Topic Suggestions.
Let’s look at some examples.
No need to explain much here. Facebook connects you with both the Social Circles in the Context of “personal updates”.
But it’s notable that Facebook didn’t start off this way. It started with the intention of connecting you with Known People (collegemates) and had a restriction on top of it — you have to be a student to become a member. So, it limited the scope to a certain age group, demographic, and Context.
But today, it, of course, is as broad as it could get. It can’t go any further and it’s almost impossible to switch the Context now.
LinkedIn’s a great example in this category. As you know, LinkedIn connects you with both the Social Circles in the Context of “work and professional updates”. “Facebook but for professionals” was literally the pitch for LinkedIn in its early years.
When you use LinkedIn, you can connect with your friends and know what they’re up to, what company they work for, and more. In addition, LinkedIn allows you to connect with your industry peers or any professionals that you find interesting or relevant.
Strava is a Category 3 social app but the context is ‘athletics’. Strava helps you to connect with your friends and relevant people nearby who are into the same activities as you are. Unlike a typical social network, Strava stands out with its utility. The app offers single-player tools that are valuable and useful to athletes and builds a social graph that makes Strava a go-to for your next athletic pursuit.
We can go on with examples but you got the idea. From TikTok to Snapchat and Goodreads to Behance, several large-scale networks fall under Category 3. Apparently, almost every social network attempts to be a Category 3 app — for obvious reasons and that means we have been overlooking Category 1 and Category 2 for a while now.
To reiterate, we can simply define a social network by tracing the ‘Social Circles’ it tries to connect along with the ‘Context’. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing so far.
Now, let’s take a leap and try to predict what kind of social networks can win!
What Can Win
In this part, we’re going to derive inferences and hopefully learn what it takes to succeed in the social networking space. As ‘Status as a service’ points out, social capital is of course important and if you are looking to build a network, especially a Category 3 one, it’s necessary.
There’s more to the story though.
To go back a bit, I’ve mentioned that Facebook didn’t start the way it is now and in fact, it looked very differently — it should’ve been in Category 1 along with WhatsApp; not in Category 3. The point is social networks evolve — in terms of their Context and in terms of their ability to connect you with different Social Circles.
So, if you aspire to build a social app, it’s important to look at two axes — Utility and Context.
a. Utility refers to the tools offered to your users for the use case that your social app solves (or attempts to solve). Utility axis goes from low to high. If the utility value is high, it means you are offering a tool that not only solves the problem for the users but is also differentiated.
Here utility “value” is perceived from the eyes of end users, not the founders. So, ideally, users will consider your product’s utility value as “high” if they can’t get it from anywhere else.
b. Context refers to the space you are operating in (and the problem you are trying to solve in that space). For WhatsApp, it’s personal communication; for Facebook, it’s keeping up with Friends & Family, and so on. Context axis goes from “Similar” to “Unique”.
‘Similar’ means your product’s context is similar to that of existing ones. ‘Unique’ means, well, it’s unique and new. So let’s look at different scenarios and see how it plays out.
Case I: Similar context and low utility value
In this case, you are attacking the problem that others have tried to solve and fail to offer any utility that could convince users to switch. Note that your product will solve its use case, perhaps, a bit better than others (i.e., can be a useful). But that doesn’t matter as long as the end users don’t see it. Again, utility value is “low” when users perceive it that way.
What if a product falls here?
Existing apps can do what you can: Most often users can do what you intend to provide with the existing app. Splitwise worked not just because it offers what others don’t, but also because other apps can’t fit this in. You can’t split the expense with WhatsApp. You can, however, plan trips, create and manage personal groups, and do other things. This is also one of the reasons why Facebook still gets an increasing number of new active users. Users use Facebook for a whole lot of reasons now; not just to connect with friends.
Case II: Similar context and High Utility Value
Here, the space you are operating in isn’t different but your utility value is perceived as high as others can’t offer it.
What if a product falls here?
Track the market. Because existing apps will do what you do — sooner or later.
If the existing apps can build additional features to take over your market need, then they will. They don’t stop with how they start and rely on external signals to release their next feature. You can’t say you are ‘better’ at solving the problem for long.
Case III: Unique context and Low Utility Value
Here you are operating in a new space but your utility value isn’t high. An example would be a social network for pet owners. While the Context is new, you can totally find and connect with pet owners via Facebook itself (think, Facebook groups). Unless you offer something specific and valuable to pet owners that can’t be fit into Facebook, the utility value is low.
What if a product falls in this case? Existing apps can do what you can.
Case IV: Unique context and High Utility Value
In this case, utility is differentiated and Context is unique. So, yes, the sweet spot!
Facebook tries to help you make Friends online — so “People You May Know” is its utility. Tiktok tries to make your day with short videos, so FYP (or its algorithm) is its utility.
So, it’s important to build a utility that solves your use case. In fact, if there’s an opportunity for another social app to grow to the size of Facebook (i.e., Category 3), it probably attacks a different context and builds a differentiated utility that solves a use case that Facebook doesn’t.
It’s not just important to nail the utility value and Context — that is, be in Case IV, you also need to understand whether there’s a market for your network. Just because the Context is unique and utility value is high, doesn’t mean that you are off to the moon! Market comes first!
And, this leads us to the final part.
What Will Exist
It’s time for us to look at what are some of the social networks that can happen — in the future. As I’m doing this mostly to see where it goes and convey the significance of “connecting Social Circles with Context”, don’t assume we’ll end up seeing the social apps I’m going to talk about.
That being said, I’m citing some real startups and social apps as well. Now, let’s start.
Private Social Network
Category 1 is all about connecting you to known people. While WhatsApp took over communication, one, it fails to go beyond messaging and two, it doesn’t differentiate family, colleagues, and others. They are all on the same plane.
So, Cocoon aims to offer what WhatsApp failed to. The context is the same — communication and personal updates but Cocoon’s utility value is high.
LinkedIn for Students
Students can hugely benefit from a professional network like LinkedIn — built solely for them. LinkedIn, due to its scale, can’t cater to a specific demographic and use case anymore. And, especially, the kind of professional network that upcoming job seekers (and creators) need isn’t what LinkedIn provides or can provide.
Give Study Web a read to see that the potential and the ways it’s happening now. I’ve attempted to do this — but couldn’t succeed for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the market.
TikTok for Dating
Category 2 apps connect you with Interesting People you want to know and Tinder, as we saw earlier, is a good example.
Snack, aims to replace Tinder by attacking the same Context but with a different format. Snack is TikTok meets Tinder. Now the question arises — is format enough of a differentiator?
Most social apps tend to club multiple formats and offer it all together (In fact, Tinder did offer video feed before). So, it’s hard for you to differentiate just with format. By chance if you’re taking this route, then ensure you aren’t just switching the format. You have to rethink the whole product and start from scratch to fit this new format. Example: Clubhouse, Tiktok, etc.
What about utility value? Will users perceive the change in format as a high utility or will they just ignore it? The best person to answer this question is your user! By chance, if they did, then you are good to go.
Connecting Students with Mentors
Steerme is an India-based social app that helps grade 12 students connect with mentors. As hundreds of thousands of students struggle to find the right major, college, and career path every year, Steerme aims to solve the problem by bringing students to the college students who have gone through the same process.
Strava for Cooking
Strava for cooking is something that can be done and many suggested it before. It can connect you with Known People and Interesting People who are likely to be interested in the same cuisines as you are — with the help of recommendations, etc.
The context is new and unique and hence the product will likely end up with high utility value. (Case IV).
Social Network for Investors
Public.com lets you own stock market shares and connects you with other investors with the help of its social features. As the company calls it, it aims to be “the investing social network”. You can follow profiles, see what stock they are holding, and take part in community discussions, and more.
Public reached a million members in 18 months post-launch and currently valued at $1.2 Bn.
It’s not all the market needs you to build a Category 1, 2, or 3 network from scratch. Sometimes, all you need is to leverage a platform like Reddit or Slack and run a community-powered venture.
Examples: Product Collective, Product School, and several other Slack groups. So the first question to ask yourself is — why do I need to build a product and what can it offer that existing community-powering platforms can’t. If it’s some bells and whistles, it’s probably not worth it.
You can fit almost all the social apps in any one of the three Categories and view them through the lens of Context and Utility to see what Case (I, II, III, or IV) they fall under. The point of writing ‘Theory of Social Circles’ isn’t to exactly predict the future social apps and their end game, it’s to give us a new lens to look at the known and seemingly saturated social networking space. Hopefully what you see is exciting and promising!
 Yes, I understand WhatsApp can help you create and join groups — i.e, connect you with Interesting People (that are currently unknown to you). But I’m going to go by the intended use case of WhatsApp — which is to connect you with Known People.
 Note that Splitwise is a social app but not the social media app. There’s not enough media content on it to call it “social media”.