Meet the anti-social networks challenging top social media platforms with close-knit communities

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Apr 18, 2021 at 09:30 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Social media platforms have been a boon and bane to our present pandemic-struck society. On one end, they are successfully fulfilling their purpose by fostering socially distanced connections. On the other, however, they have become hubs for rampant misinformation, trolls and data breaches. Given this ‘double-edged sword’ status, it is of little surprise to witness a key demographic segment on the retreat from such platforms.

As the new generations crave privacy, safety and respite from the throngs of strangers on major social forums, they are slowly gravitating towards more intimate destinations—ones with no likes, followers or glossy digital personas. Introducing the curated, close-knit realm of anti-social networks.

What are anti-social networks?

If social media can feel like a crowded airport terminal where everyone is allowed but no one feels particularly excited to be there, anti-social networks offer a more intimate oasis—where smaller groups of people are excited to gather around shared interests,” summed up Sara Wilson, founder of the Digital Campfire Framework, in an article for Harvard Business Review.

Bracing for the incoming era of ‘anti-social social media’, Wilson dubbed these spaces “digital campfires” by identifying three categories of anti-social networks: private messaging, micro-communities and shared experiences.

1. Private messaging networks

In a report by ZAK, the youth-focused agency surveyed over 1,000 social media users under the age of 30. Nearly two-thirds of the participants admitted their preference of talking in private messaging threads rather than on open forums and feeds. Sixty per cent outlined how conversations on these private groups have made them “share more openly.”

Private messaging networks are targeted to do just that. These small messaging groups are usually (but not always) created with a user’s real-life friends. The best example of this network is the app U;Good?. The idea is simple: maybe you don’t want to call, text or have a full-on conversation with someone but want to let your closest friends know that “you’re doing good.” That’s where U;Good? comes in. The app essentially helps with what is now termed the ‘pandemic communication conundrum’.

Described as the “ultimate anti-social social media,” U;Good? provides three buttons to users while replying to friendly check-ups—with green, yellow and red symbolising statuses of ‘I’m good,’ ‘So-so’ and ‘No, I’m not’ respectively.

Private messaging networks are often seen on traditional social media platforms as well. According to ZAK’s survey, 38 per cent of users under the age of 30 use Facebook only for its private messenger function. Instagram’s standalone app, Threads—designed for quick-fire messaging with close friends via camera and text—was next, showing an upward usage curve.

Wilson noted various brands capitalising on this cultural trend by adapting similar technologies like texting (with actual humans and chatbots) to mimic the intimacy of personal conversations with friends. Text Rex, a members-only, text message-based restaurant recommendation service, lets users text questions like “Where should I take my date in midtown Manhattan?” or “What’s the best midday sushi in Santa Monica?” to receive curated answers from the staff.

Community is another text-based service that launched last year. The app facilitates direct conversations between high-profile companies and influencers with their fans via text messaging “without getting buried by social feeds and algorithms.

2. Micro-community networks

Micro-communities can be private or semi-private forums where users gather around specific interests, beliefs or passions. Curated Discord servers ranging from gaming to cult-beauty products and even Slack—the well-known workplace messaging tool—are commonplaces for micro-communities to gather around shared interests.

“Brands can tap into existing micro-community networks by partnering with influencers, or they can invest time and resources to build their own ‘digital campfires’ from scratch,” advised Wilson by noting Sprite’s No Estás Solo campaign as a successful capitalisation effort of this network. Leveraging data from Google to determine personal pain points among the youth, Sprite set up dedicated subreddits, each helmed by an influencer who had personal experience with the issue. The outcome? “A poignant personal discussion about loneliness,” said Wilson.

Other notable examples include Yubo—the gen Z live video platform favouring sociability, sharing and authenticity over the typical validation mechanisms and ‘influencer culture’ that we’ve grown accustomed to on other platforms—along with Glossier’s private Slack channel, created for its loyal customers to talk about beauty trends, organise meet-ups and discuss product launches.

“At one time, this type of forum might have been dubbed ‘market research.’ Today, it also serves as an engine for fandoms, while simultaneously allowing the company to be nimble and responsive to anything that is discussed there,” concluded Wilson.

3. Shared experience network

These networks include private or public forums where users gather around mutual interests and shared experiences. Connecting with like-minded individuals, major platforms under this network include the live broadcasting and viewing platform, Twitch. Currently expanding into non-gaming categories like music and sports, the platform is followed by the multiplayer video game Fortnite.

Now one of the “planet’s biggest social networks,” Fortnite was quick to amass a loyal fanbase. Spending 6 to 10 hours on the platform, more than half of the teenagers playing the game admitted to using it to “keep up with their friends,” most of whom they’ve never actually met in-person. “Fortnite is a form of entertainment,” Wilson stated. “But more than that, it’s a catalyst for bringing together like-minded people for a shared experience. And the game’s steep learning curve lends it an aura of exclusivity.”

Brands like Marvel and Nike have previously leveraged platforms like Fortnite to reach their audiences by selling Skins and creating branded game modes with limited-edition in-game product drops.

“Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories and small groups are by far the fastest-growing areas of online communication,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a public post, announcing Facebook’s strategic shift towards more closed and private modes of communication. While Facebook is paying attention to this shift with an impending risk of losing younger audiences permanently, it should also be kept in mind that 98 per cent of the tech giant’s revenue comes from advertising. Such anti-social networks essentially make it hard for advertisers to reach audiences at scale.

Presently, as vaccine FOMO grips the social media world along with the fact that such platforms are often responsible for anti-social behaviour, it might just be time to relearn communication—by creating our own curated little world of happiness instead of the black holes we’ve been calling our social lives online so far.

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