Published by

Cecilia Manduca

Associate

March 3 2021 • 5min read

March 3 2021 • 5min read

Sourdough bread, ASMR, and subreddits: virtual communities are here to stay

2020 was the year where online communities finally gained as much significance in our lives as offline communities.

— Alexandra Ocasio-Cortes playing Among Us live on Twitch

2020 was the year where online communities finally gained as much significance in our lives as offline communities. As people all around the world spent the months of the COVID-19 pandemic confined to the four walls of their apartments, moving constantly between platforms like DiscordTwitchSlack, and Strava, and games like Animal Crossing and Robloxvirtual communities provided a valuable opportunity for social interaction.

Virtual communities aren’t new. The early adopters of my generation (young millennials) got to know them in our early teenage years through NetlogAIMBebo, and MySpace, and older generations later cottoned on to the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Virtual communities have been a part of my life since I was a teenager, but they’ve undeniably come to play a much more significant role in our lives. I see two main drivers for this:

1. The oldest Gen Zers are now young adults. Gen Z is the first digitally-native generation and they came to use social media much earlier in their lives compared to their predecessors. They were, essentially, fully internet-proficient as children. They’re the right generation to pioneer the new growth in virtual communities as they’re the first generation to intuitively blur the lines between online and offline.

2. The COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, virtual communities and spaces offered people the opportunity to connect with something bigger than themselves, and to find aspects of their most niche interests through technology. Virtual communities have helped to meet people’s social needs, forming a critical component of their social lives where they can be their most genuine selves, and they’ve democratized access to opportunities historically reserved to top tier cities dweller: for example, tech companies are now much more comfortable hiring talent from all over the world as a result of the shift to remote working. COVID has ultimately changed the constraints of the physical world and physical places.

Thanks to these two shifts, we are seeing every virtual platform becoming a social community. The trend of our social lives going from IRL to URL has definitively accelerated in recent years and has allowed people to find solace with like-minded individuals. It’s inevitable that elements of this shift to virtual social lives will be permanent. So, in this article, I’ll be exploring the different places where people socialize online, looking at vertical and horizontal communities, as well as the new social networks.

Companies: SupergreatNewnessAgoraPopshopStravaPaceSanctusGoodreadsCommonStockFinary, FinimizeCookpadDemiUntappdVivinoJoroZeroFastersThe PatternCoStarPodCornGlow FMSupercastMomentHouseHeadlinerZigazooRobloxNextdoorVisualize ValueAre.naBuilding A Second BrainNess labsPeanutFuturelandSecret Energy

Vertical communities are, very simply, places where people come together to explore mutual interests and hobbies. Companies in the virtual community space have raised in excess of $1.6bn globally.

These interests can be as mainstream as running or as niche as sourdough bread baking: regardless of the interest, there will inevitably be a community for them somewhere. Look at how many people are into Subliminals on Youtube, for example, or at the growth of ASMR. ASMR wasn’t even a word in 2009 but now has over 13m videos on YouTube. A quick scroll on Reddit helps with legitimizing the weirdest and most niche interests, from Chairs Under Water and People With Bird Heads to the quite mesmerizing Unstirred Paint. It’s highly likely that without the existence of these communities, these interests would never have emerged in the real world.

Chef Martha De Lacey’s subscription-based sourdough community on Instagram — launched during lockdown

There are several trends underlining the boom and growth of vertical communities and vertical social networks. On the consumer side, hobbies and interests — particularly during the pandemic — have gained more significance in people’s lives, and there’s inevitably more time for people to pursue these passions, whether that be interests they already had, or new ones they’ve found in this time. On the creator side, many people have found themselves out of work as a result of lockdown restrictions and so have used this opportunity to finally make the step towards making their hobbies a source of income. We can see this clearly in the boom in the passion and creators’ economy: Substack’s users doubled in the first 3 months of the pandemic alone; Patreon saw a huge rise in signups as the pandemic hit; OnlyFans subscriptions skyrocketed during the pandemic, and Apple Podcasts went from having 550k podcasts on its database in June 2018 to over 1m in April ‘20, and 1.75m in January ‘21. With more niche interests being explored and embraced, and with creators having more time to produce content, a hyper-fertile ground for interest-driven virtual communities has sprouted.

AMSR & Subliminal videos on Youtube

While Reddit, Youtube, and TikTok are a fertile bed for the birth of these niche communities, and while some communities will always remain faithful to these socials, some more established communities need a standalone place on the Internet that is customisable to their needs, and therefore landing on custom-built apps and websites that uniquely cater for them. Astrology offers a clear example: while there are countless subreddits dedicated to astrology, and TikTok’s #astrology videos surpass 11bn views, there is still the need for dedicated community-based apps for consumers that are passionate about astrology and keen to connect with like-minded individuals, such as Co-Star and The Pattern.

These vertical socials are able to grow because they give their communities a feeling of exclusivity and cult-like bonding. Finding individuals who share your weird and wonderful interests is fulfilling, and so communities are often happy to pay to be part of it, initiating a self-fulfilling flywheel that helps these apps with non-ad reliant monetization. It’s worth noting, though, that while the existence of these communities legitimizes niche interests and allows people to feel true to themselves, they also present risks of deepening our generation’s echo chamber problem. Echo chambers and lack of confrontations with people with different ideas have the risk to further polarization, partisanship, and misinformation, impacting beyond virtual life.

Vertical communities are not only limited to hobbies and entertainment. As the pandemic prevents the business world from meeting in person and half of San Francisco (according to Twitter) migrates to countryside America, new virtual places for networking and discussion of business, tech, products and entrepreneurship are emerging.

While few virtual conferences can mimic the experience of a Web Summit after-party, the pandemic has forced the business world to make a permanent shift towards remote working, suggesting that virtual networking is here to stay. And, who knows, the cofounders of the next unicorn might meet on Clubhouse!

Companies: UpstreamGitHubLunchclub AIIndie HackersRepl.itProduct HuntDribbleFishbowlCapicheThe LandingThe GrandTopknot

Horizontal Communities

Horizontal communities are communities and places where people can talk about anything. While the specific group on the platform might be interest-driven, the platform itself is hobby/interest agnostic. Companies in this space have raised in total almost $2bn, though this is in large part due to incumbents like Slack ($1.4bn) and Discord ($479m).

Companies: SlackGeneva ChatCircle.soMighty NetworksDiscordDisciple Media, VibelyBunchesSteemitZebra IQ

Some of the leading horizontal community platforms weren’t even specifically built to be community-driven. Slack, for example, is well-known as a corporate communication software for companies, but is also now widely used as the backbone of thriving online communities such as Femstreet or Gen Z VCs. On the other hand, more recent platforms such as Circle.so and Geneva are purpose-built to enable any kind of communities to thrive, from podcasts and newsletter communities to brand-driven communities.

Most of these platforms tend to be creator-driven. The rise of the passion economy has seen a sharp increase in the number of creators on different social media platforms to the point that creators and influencers are now this generation’s celebrities. Today’s creators are a lot more relatable than celebrities singing ‘Imagine’ from their mansions: they are common people with common problems. They showcase everything that’s going on in their life on social media and they care a lot more about interacting and being closer to their fans. Their rawness and their ordinariety is what fascinates Gen Zs. Look no further than how different TikTok star Charli D’Amelio is from the millennial-favorite Kardashian family. The Connecticut-born high schooler grew to fame by posting casual dance routines, assembling 109m TikTok followers mostly because she’s normal, approachable, genuine and real. It’s a far cry from the Kardashian family, who gained their popularity through their excessive, over-the-top and aspirational lifestyles.

Horizontal communities are an exclusive place for top fans to go one level deeper in interacting with creators and gain access to exclusive content, be the special episode of their favorite podcasts, exclusive newsletter issues, or pro memberships perks from online courses. As Sari Azout discusses, though, scaling intimacy is the million-dollar question for micro digital communitiesCreators need to strike a balance between ensuring that conversation is always relevant and spam-free, and that they can interact with everybody, and large enough communities that the monetary gain rewards the time spent curating them.

Alternative Socials

Companies: DialUp,Clubhouse, DispoSpecialFIshMonetWinkYuboAlterIMVUWizzItsmeYell,

 LemonadeEggHonkHighriseAirtimeTelepathZigazoo

Gen Zs grew up on Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok and are very aware of the differences between different socials. Their Instagram ‘persona’ slightly differs from their TikTok or Snapchat ‘persona’ as every social comes with its own set of subcultures and subrules. While millennials sought consistency in their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles (multiposting anyone?!), Gen Zs like having different places where they can show different sides of their personalities. This non-exclusive relationship with incumbent social media platforms only means fertile ground for new, upcoming Social 3.0 platforms. Alternative socials have raised close to $750m and is easily the most interesting sector in terms of innovation and opportunity.

A lot of the interactions in these platforms are live and ephemeral: livestreams and audio live chats amplify casual, drop-in, interactions and, in turn, FOMO. Clubhouse is the queen of live apps, but the live element is key also to other socials like Yubo or DialUp. Even messaging platforms are becoming ‘live’, with the likes of Honk taking advantage of this to enable the conversation to flow more naturally.

While the first social networks were all about recreating existing communities in the virtual world, building new networks and meeting new friends is a common theme in these new socials. Apps like Alter and Itsme allow you to meet new friends with mutual interests as your avatar self, merging gaming culture with social networks. Gen Z aesthetic and pop culture (such as raw visual, 90s internet nostalgia, playful and naïve characters, serendipitous creativity, Pokèmon, anime, bold neon colors) are all over these apps, mixing light-hearted creativity with rooms where users can talk about anything, from LGBTQ+ to eSports.

Monet, for example, is a dating app where users answer to prompts with drawings, such as ‘Draw your Among Us character’, ‘draw your favorite Pokèmon’ or ‘draw the food you hate’; whereas Dispo is a nostalgic anti-Instagram social you can see your pictures only 24h after you’ve taken them, to give them time to ‘develop’ and live more ‘in the moment’.

There’s no doubt that virtual communities will become increasingly significant in our lives, even when we return to some degree of normality. The pandemic has exacerbated a trend that was already growing, driven by Gen Z coming of age and finding new ways to socialize online.

With this growing trend comes huge opportunity, both for new platforms and for creators. The vertical community space is the most saturated, but also presents a big opportunity as existing interests evolve and new interests emerge. Founders in this space need to keep track of what new hypes are being created. Some opportunities I’ve identified in this space are interest-specific communities; digital nomads communities; communities around learning (e.g. cohort-based courses; spirituality communities, and language-learning communities.

Horizontal communities have easily had the most attention from the VC world, but the space is dominated by incumbents Slack and Discord. Geneva and Circle.so are trying to take a slice of the pie, but it’s unlikely that we’ll see Discord being overshadowed soon, especially as software comes to play an increasingly important role in ever-growing communities in both crypto and gaming. I believe we’ll see new software and platforms emerge with a creator-first ethos. This is a hugely exciting space as the world has over 15M creators, and creators have realized that closed communities with their truest, most engaged fans is a viable option for monetization.

Alternative socials is, to me, the most interesting space. Before, we used to think that the Facebook empire, Snap and Twitter owned it all: but now, with the rise in popularity and hype of new socials such as Clubhouse, Dispo and Yubo, we are seeing a rebirth of the consumer social ecosystem. Given the appetite for these newer channels, we believe there is space for new dating apps, new socials for specific social groups (kids and seniors, for example), new messaging tools and new places to meet friends.

Here’s a TL;DR for this piece, and three key takeaways:

1. We’re seeing a legitimisation of niche communities and spaces: while some bigger, denser communities might have ad-hoc vertical groups, niche communities can also benefit from platforms where users can bond and share specific mutual interests.

2. Creators are moving away from ad revenues and instead are focusing on their most engaged audiences through VIP memberships, exclusive content, personalised video, content preview and even investing in platforms.

3. Gen Z will drive the charge in alternative social platforms, looking at more playful, hypercasual places to develop new relationships.

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