Fast Forward: Building Consumer at Internet Speed

Written by Katie Chiou

Communities and cultures are nourished by rich context. Historically, context was a natural product of communities that were local and physically constrained.

The internet ushered in a Cambrian explosion of connection, allowing us to find each other while thousands of miles apart. People began forming communities around factors beyond location, such as personal interests and ideologies. In some ways, the internet felt like the only venue where one could fully and freely express themselves and find other like-minded people without borders.

Developing rich context in mercurial cyberspace, where both people and information move at the speed of light, is a challenge. Digital communities are tight knit, but are often more narrow—focused on one or two key traits rather than any holistic, shared identity.

Platforms and their Algorithms are the all-powerful gods in this climate, the providers of context. While feeding you niche, personalized recommendations, platforms control your rapidly individualized view on the world and alienate you from everyone else. I’ve written about this before in the context of music discovery:

“Constructing identity—both as an artist and as an average listener—is complicated in a Big Algorithm society. I wrote earlier that broadcast and algorithmic feeds are isolating, but the method by which these platforms isolate you is not just by literally cutting you off from local content or discourse. Endless feeds and global search offer access to an infinite scroll of new contextual layers through which to view yourself. While then identity becomes more dynamic and fluid, finding platforms and communities that support these nuances becomes another challenge.”

When you’re alienated from other people, you become even more reliant on the platform to feed you information—namely the creators specifically anointed by the algorithm. There are a few problems that result from this dynamic:

Creators must play by the platform’s rules in order to participate. Pay the platform for amplification, be subjected to their business models and take rates, adhere to the platform’s arbitrary policies and optimizations—or fall through the cracks. As platforms gain more power over who gets elevated, they eventually gain more influence over general cultural production. Kyle Chayka shares an anecdote about an artist, Hallie, in his book Filterworld that illustrates this point:

“Hallie also realized that the Instagram feed rewarded specific qualities. She had always combined visual art and writing, but posts with clear written messages got the most engagement. [...] It was a meme-like assembly-line process perfectly suited for Instagram: the bright colors and simple text added a little spice to her followers’ feeds along with simple moral messages. Followers came to rely on her account for those pieces alone. [...] The pressure that Hallie felt to make the rest of her artwork similarly bright, clear and simple is much like the pressure that a musician feels to frontload the hook of a song so it succeeds on TikTok or a writer feels to have a take so hot it lights up the Twitter feed.”

Culture submits to power-law like distribution. The only semblance of any “shared” culture in an Algorithmic society values mass scale and commercialization above all else, coalescing around major IP from a wildly different past or breakthrough moments that dissipate as quickly as they appear. Attention consolidates around a few mega stars/trends like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift (whose careers took off pre-Youtube) and bottoms out drastically. You see the ramifications of this dynamic perhaps most clearly in the resurgence of reboots, spinoffs, and sequels. According to Adam Mastrioanni:

“Until the year 2000, about 25% of top-grossing movies were prequels, sequels, spinoffs, remakes, reboots, or cinematic universe expansions. Since 2010, it’s been over 50% every year.”

In 2022, the top ten highest-grossing movies were all reboots or sequels.

Consumption-focused design patterns make social platforms less sticky. There has been growing concern about why new consumer social applications have struggled to break out, with theories for cause ranging from domination by existing giants to the influx of tools has made it almost “too easy” to build an app today. One of my personal theories is that it’s a result of the fact that “social platforms” today have become more broadcast-based, rather than actually social. Eugene Wei refers to this development as the transition from “social networking” to “social media.” Platforms are increasingly designed to be consumed, rather than to foster interpersonal connection.

The result then, ironically, is that the platform's network effects diminish, as you’re less bound by the social graph of the platform. Instead, people flee from app to app en-masse without any actual loss or consequence. Social graphs retreat to what Venkatesh Rao refers to as the “cozy web,” insular group chats that retain intimacy, but lose the benefits of discovery or legible digital presence.

In a climate where users are more wary of platform influence than ever before, many are also retreating to physical spaces: underground local clubs, independent studio/community spaces, physical pop-up stores and experiences, etc.

The likelihood of a true retreat to the physical world is unlikely, given how intertwined the digital and physical worlds have become. Digital spaces have undoubtedly become first-class citizens alongside physical spaces, but an interesting tension emerges here:

How do we leverage the expansiveness and connectivity of the digital world, while avoiding manipulation by platform monopolies and maintaining the strong context and intimacy of the physical world?

To answer this question, I believe the next generation of consumer platforms and networks will have to account for the following considerations into their designs:

Online/Offline Fluidity

The user journey across online and offline is incredibly fragmented. As the boundary between the physical and digital planes continues to blur, the ability to form a truly legible, representative identity disintegrates. There is a massive opportunity to build experiences that seamlessly blend the physical and digital, particularly where social graphs can move freely between online and offline.

For individuals/communities: How can my favorite channels online better inform and tie to the people, groups, and places I spend time with offline and vice versa?

For brands: How can a brand better understand how a consumer who bought a product in-store spends their time online and engage them on those platforms?

As a firsthand example, I have a friend who is an interdisciplinary artist whose work generally focuses on the intersection of art and technology (and therefore, is often digital). He works primarily with global, blue-chip art galleries and institutions to exhibit his work, and he also distributes his films on digital platforms such as Metrograph’s streaming service. Because his direct client base is institutions and galleries, he has very few ties to the individuals who actually engage with his work through these channels.

This lack of connectivity creates a few major issues. His work is siloed into infrequent, large-scale exhibitions without clear opportunity for smaller, more intimate releases that directly target and engage his audience; lack of ability to connect with his audience also diminishes the opportunity to take advantage of organic, word-of-mouth marketing that is native to digital, social channels. For example, if I, as an artist, am able to understand what other artists my fans engage with through social channels, I can find ways to collaborate with those artists and increase my own reach.

Today, digital social channels are great for organic distribution that underpins more material monetization opportunities such as partnerships with institutions. A future where creators, influencers, and artists can directly monetize within these channels in a way that improves the relationships between artist and audience and funnel this distribution to other monetization opportunities IRL without relying as heavily on intermediaries would be game-changing unlock.

The concept of “digiphysical” isn’t new, and there are plenty of primitives that were built to bridge users from online to offline: attestations, NFT tickets, POAPs, NFC-chipped objects. General, extensible primitives such as these are useful from a composability and open experimentation perspective, but primitives hold the most power and utility when imbued with context and meaning, such as clear vertical focus or closed product loops. For example, collecting points in a game is only compelling when I know that those points will bring me closer to some certain goal or reward.

An example model to look towards is Blackbird, which has designed a closed product loop for user loyalty and rewards. Power diners/foodies attest to being at physical restaurant locations in order to claim $FLY, which they can redeem for perks at other restaurants.

Decentralized Reputation & Curation

In regards to user-generated content and media, there are two high-level trends currently occurring in parallel: Individual users are gaining more cultural power, thanks to social media, and users are more wary of monolithic media platforms.

These trends are uncomfortably contradictory, but we see them come to a head clearly in the decline of cultural criticism and the toppling of existing media institutions. Social media platforms have given the average user enough distribution to become their own cultural journalist and critic. Simultaneously, longstanding media institutions and platforms lose prestige and cultural credibility. Yancey Strickler writes about this in, “The Prestige Recession”:

“The death of Pitchfork and cultural criticism is evidence that the mainstream is going through a prestige recession. [...] Rather than prestige, this cultural moment is dominated by metrics, [...] It was once critics who helped shape cultural values – spotting a trend here, putting a scene on the map there – but now the process is driven by metrics. Context, the land of the artist and the critic, has been determined valueless (unless algorithmic) by the mainstream, which honestly never much cared for it to begin with. Instead, art and culture have been safely neutralized as interchangeable commercial objects just like everything else.”

To tie these threads together a bit more tightly, algorithmic feeds have both given users more cultural power and also stripped away power from traditional media institutions that have historically curated and distributed media. However, users have quickly caught onto the fact that algorithmic feeds have become a new form of monolithic platform, coalescing curation around scalable metrics and flattened cultural sensibilities. Essentially, the skepticism towards Big Media has shifted power towards Big Algorithm.

The next generation of consumer social platforms will likely follow a structure where individuals are encouraged to co-create and self-curate their own digital community spaces, abstracting away more centralizing platform mechanics that veer towards explicit scale and monoculture. Every user is able to actively build a community and elevate their own “digitally local” curators, rather than passively consume a single mega-feed that is designed to scale to the masses—think Facebook group pages, Subreddits, NTS channels, Discord servers, etc. A newer platform aligned with this co-creation model is Metalabel, which enables groups to coordinate and publish creative work together.

In order for these digital spaces to grow, the platform will still have to provide sufficient mechanisms for identity and reputation so that users can discover relevant collaborators, communities, and audiences. This process emerges rather naturally in physical, local environments, but bringing these mechanics online is tricky given the natural scale.

To date, digital social discovery and reputation mechanisms have been markers such as “likes” and “followers,” but I imagine we’re bound to soon see more creative mechanisms for users to signal taste and cultural capital to each other, as platforms and communities trend smaller and more intimate.

Speed & Transience

Consumer social applications have become fleeting almost by default—see Poparazzi, BeReal, Dispo, etc. This is due to a variety of factors including patterns trending more consumption-based versus social discovery-based and therefore less sticky (as I mentioned in the beginning of this post), the arena for attention has become infinitely more competitive in the last decade, etc.

The next generation of consumer social platforms will have to account for and remain resilient to [sped up] trend cycles. Such resilience will become even more crucial as AI-powered, generative content becomes more widespread and accessible.

Umbrella-like or channel-like product structures with sandboxed subspaces are typically more durable because spaces can develop their own unique color, but remain isolated so that they may “burn brightly, explode, and fade away,” to use Packy’s analogy. The caveat to this structure is that it adds complexity for the user in terms of navigation and discovery, and also is a less plausible structure for platforms that are already vertical-specific or particularly narrow in scope.

There are also different schools of thought related to whether a more broad, extensible approach or a more focused approach with a single, unified product experience is more effective. For example, should you build a platform that communities of all shapes and forms can use or should you specifically target and build for one community? You also see this type of question arise around gaming-related platforms: Should you build an app store-like platform or focus all your energy on a single game? My general belief is that while developing a generalized platform is tempting, opinionated, narrow products with closed feedback loops can better retain initial users. Once user trust has been established around a single, quality experience, it becomes easier to expand scope if later desired.

The “drop” model is also another option to consider to keep users consistently engaged, serially launching small-scale products that are generally differentiated, but contained by the overarching brand/ecosystem (ie: MSCHF). The challenge with a drop model is managing retention across drops and making sure the social value of each drop still directly ties to the overall brand equity.

Other writers I admire have offered their own commentary and solutions to this phenomenon.

In “Small Applications, Growing Protocols,” Packy McCormick cites protocols as the layer that may ultimately yield the most long-term value from ephemeral apps that contribute users and data to the base protocol/network. Protocols can then incentivize app developers to build strong products on their protocols through tokens.

Li Jin extends this point further in her post, “Multi-Hit Wonders: Embracing Apps With Short Shelf Life” where she posits that teams can use a token model to capture value from a series of more transient, experimental apps. Moreover, tokens can be used to bootstrap product usage, seize attention and conduct self-marketing, and to create composable ties between different products.

A challenge to designing token models is that financial primitives can often create emergent incentives for other stakeholders that may be difficult to manage. For example, evaluating early product-market fit is extremely difficult when a material percentage of users may be driven by token incentives, rather than product affinity. Effectively leveraging tokens without compromising sustainability of the product will be a key design consideration for teams looking to use tokens as mechanisms for threading value across multiple products.

Culture is Moving at the Speed of Light

Throughout this post, I’ve touched on a few different topics that would each be deserving of its own dedicated exploration: identity, social media, traditional media, subcultures, communities, brand loyalty, etc. However, the overarching narrative remains abundantly clear.

Users, culture, and value are flowing more rapidly, more abundantly, and more expansively across physical and digital spaces than ever before. We are still in the very early innings of developing new tools for individual identity, community-building, and culture creation for this new paradigm. The products of tomorrow will look wildly different than the products of yesterday, and they’re already being built today.

Thank you to Patrick Rivera, Eugene Wei, Brian Kim, Jose Mejia, Jad Esber, and Archetype colleagues Ash Egan, Benjamin Funk, Danny Sursock, Tyler Gehringer, and Dmitriy Berenzon for thoughtful review and feedback on drafts of this post.


This post is for general information purposes only. It does not constitute investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investment and should not be used in the evaluation of the merits of making any investment decision. It should not be relied upon for accounting, legal or tax advice or investment recommendations. You should consult your own advisers as to legal, business, tax, and other related matters concerning any investment or legal matters. Certain information contained in here has been obtained from third-party sources, including from portfolio companies of funds managed by Archetype. This post reflects the current opinions of the authors and is not made on behalf of Archetype or its affiliates and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Archetype, its affiliates or individuals associated with Archetype. The opinions reflected herein are subject to change without being updated.

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