What does it mean to be connected to someone else? Much was made of a 2011 study that said the rise of social media was making us lonely and less well-connected despite our many online relationships. A popular interpretation was that our online connections are superficial and lack the meaning of our real-life relationships.
But it turns out that people are searching for meaning online, and supply is (slowly) following demand: People are engaging more with platforms that deliver meaningful connections. Part of this is a logical evolution: We go from novelty and fun of connecting online to needing more substance beneath. Part of the shift is likely human nature: As we spend more time in front of screens, we naturally seek the same things we are used to in real life. What’s particularly astounding is that this all-in online behavior with this meaningful group of people comes at just the time when online privacy and extraction from online forums seem to be the trend.
Our prediction for the future of online communication is a convergence from transactional one-to-one connections (think instant messaging) and one-to-many (“the Internet of friends”) to the Internet of family and close friends only. For people, this means more emotive, more engaging, and more satisfying online relationships. For anyone who spends a dollar marketing online, this means having the ability to reach consumers in powerful new ways.
Making Meaning In The Internet Of Family And Close Friends
Take, for example, Tinybeans, a mobile app and Web platform that connects families through private social networks with children at the center. Each family’s digital journal of photos, videos, and key developmental milestones is shared only with a select group of close friends and family.
Tinybeans CEO Eddie Geller says that the platform has more than 350,000 families in the U.S. alone--each with multiple users. Engagement in Tinybeans is unprecedented for a platform that started just three years ago: Its unique e-mail open rate is 72%, and its active users are using the service more than 20 times each month. But why?
We think two factors are at play in this Internet of family application:
1. The network is concentrated with five to 15 people.
2. The subject matter is narrowly focused and highly emotive (children!).
These same factors also appear to be driving revenue in video games with strong social components. Video users spend mightily on in-app purchases because it provides them with the key elements of a meaningful online relationship: the concentrated network and the highly emotive subject matter. (Players care a lot about the game!)
As the Internet of family and close friends emerges and grows, people will increasingly shift their time toward platforms that meet their need for smaller networks and focused, emotive content.
At the same time, user engagement in these platforms will likely be greater than traditional social networking, and as a consequence, revenues will likely rise. Narrow subject matter has the dual benefit of being both highly engaging and highly focused for advertisers. In the case of Tinybeans, the topic is children, which is highly emotive for young families, also making these mini-networks incredibly valuable for manufacturers and retailers that serve young families. New York Magazine senior editor Noreen Malone called it “the most loving space on the Internet.”
Making Meaning On Existing Platforms
This does not mean that old platforms for communication will go away. But they will have to adapt to rising demand for more meaningful connections. Already we see meaningful moves in this direction by key social media players in the market today.
Text messaging continues to evolve, too. Not in its form, but in the way we use it. Have you noticed the rise of group text messages in recent years? Data isn't publicly available for the number of people on our text messages because wireless carriers don’t publish call detail records for SMS, but it is hard to argue that group texting isn’t growing rapidly. Just look at your phone.
A Formula For Meaning
As we spend more of our waking hours looking at screens, it is natural to expect that we will seek that meaning in these digital connections. Certainly, our behavioral changes online and rising social platforms indicate just that and provide insight into the latent demand for meaning. But what makes meaning?
For now, there is tremendous “white space” for innovation in the Internet of family and close friends, and the few players that are very focused on this are growing rapidly. It will be fascinating to watch who will win and lose in this new territory and who will ultimately help us find meaning in our online (and most important) connections.