Looking back every year, I’ve felt like there was always one big new theme to how people were connecting and sharing information. Over the past several years I feel like we could find at least one key transformation that was starting to break out among mainstream users that year:
- 2003: Friendster started this craze as the first social network everyone got in.
- 2004: LinkedIn started to grow independently as a professional network
- 2005: MySpace was taking over, starting with celebrities and especially bands and their fans. At the same time Facebook was just starting to grow in colleges.
- 2006: YouTube started becoming the place for all user generated video. Lazy Sunday from Saturday Night Live was a good kickoff for the year.
- 2007: Facebook and MySpace became platforms for social products and apps and games started blowing up faster than ever before
- 2008: Facebook surpassed MySpace and started expanding to all ages and growing worldwide.
- 2009: Twitter grew independently as an important information network with asymmetric following
- 2010: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all continued to grow much more prominently. At the same time mobile and apps were rapidly becoming a thing.
- 2011: Instagram and mobile photos started becoming mainstream as a new dominant way to share, and the easiest way to get photos off your phone. Pinterest captured interest and intent as people started collecting their favorite products and images from everywhere.
- 2012: OTT Messaging was rapidly growing as a major force. People in the US may have missed some of this, but WeChat was brewing in China and WhatsApp was growing fast worldwide.
- 2013: Snapchat started taking over with teens in the US showing that photos were for communication (beyond just sharing). Ephemerality created a whole new level of trust vs the push to public in Facebook and Twitter.
- 2014: Anonymity was explored heavily. Secret, Whisper, Yik Yak were the talk of the town, though no one knew who was talking. At the same time Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Vox, Medium, and others were growing fast as new media — creating/publishing new content that spread rapidly on new channels.
So what happened in 2015?
First off — I think we collectively took a big breath. The big dominant companies — Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp/Messenger, Google/YouTube kept growing. They are now very mainstream — over 1.5 billion people on Facebook, over 1 billion every day. Facebook and YouTube businesses are now very strong. While Twitter hasn’t necessarily kept growing, it’s still at the center of the conversation and has over 300M monthly users and $2B in revenue. This is all becoming the most important form of media.
Snapchat and Pinterest have tipped to big and mainstream companies now too — both at or near 100M monthly users. Snapchat stories are a big big deal and it’s good to see mainstream media and more finally realizing this (two years late). Both companies’ next big challenges are to build big businesses on top of the usage. I’m pretty confident both will succeed. Snapchat is the most important product for a very large and important demographic (teens and early 20s are when people lock in spending habits). Those users watch a ton of full screen video and content which they will either watch more ads too, or will spend money for premium content and virtual goods. Pinterest is so deeply in the intent and commerce flow for its users, it has to be able to monetize on that behavior. We’ll see in a year, but I’m confident they will both become strong businesses (maybe a half step more confident in Snapchat).
Here are some topics that had the most conversation in 2015:
- live mobile video — Meerkat (I’m an investor) and Periscope broke out into the conversation in the spring and YouNow has sustained growth through the year. Twitch is becoming the next ESPN with E-sports and its network of streamers. (Esports is really big). Facebook got into the live video game too so it’s now just a feature for them. But even with all of this enthusiasm, I haven’t felt like we’ve had our mainstream live moment yet. I don’t hear people turning on Periscope and turning off the TV. It turns out live is hard — getting a large enough audience spontaneously is tricky. I think it works best when it’s within a group of friends and I hope to see more of that happening next year. I still believe that mobile live video will become an important and mainstream thing but I don’t think it was 2015.
- messaging for business — Magic and Operator (I’m an investor) both launched in 2015 and started helping people do business transactions solely via messaging. Wechat has been enabling this in China for years. Facebook is investing heavily here and talking a lot about M for Messenger. But there are still a lot of questions about how this will scale, and what the long term models look like (AI vs humans, etc). It’s going to be exciting for sure, but it wasn’t 2015.
- music videos and dubbing — So if you look at the App Store charts, there were very new few companies that broke into the top 25 in a sustained way in 2015. Among those few are Dubsmash, Musical.ly, Acapella by PicPlayPost. These spread via messaging like WhatsApp and Messenger as well as on Instagram, Twitter, etc. This is a new form of content that’s growing very quickly. Teens especially love making these, and find it addictive and much easier and more fun than recording boring video. Later in the year both Twitter’s Vine and Facebook’s Moments app added some similar abilities to make music videos but I haven’t seen either take off. YouTube hasn’t done much around this, though they did launch YouTube Music for all the music videos on their service. I think a big question is whether there is an independent new entertainment network that can grow here, but it definitely is worth watching the category.
- enterprise messaging — probably the biggest story around communication this year is in the enterprise. Slack has grown to 2M daily users which is a pretty big deal for within companies. And more interestingly, a lot of the usage is on desktop instead of mobile. There is a long ways to go to displace Outlook and email, but Slack is leading the charge here and making real revenue as companies are paying per user.
What is most striking here is while all of these trends are very early, big companies like Facebook are already investing. Rather than missing the next wave like they did with Snapchat and ephemerality, they are being aggressive in case something breaks out. This doesn’t bode as well for startups, but then again, we always say that until startups break out again.
Here are a few things I’m still excited about in social/communications and think are big opportunities for next year and beyond. (If you are working on anything here, please get in touch!)
- live conversations —social feeds have shifted us to a world of sharing moments with each other rather than experiencing them together. When we’re in a live conversation we know we are sharing a real moment — whether live audio, live video, playing games together, collaborating in virtual reality together. We’re all connected now but people feel more alone than ever. Being together live changes this and should happen more often.
- group conversation — Slack has taken over group communication and messaging for work with its design of channels and the network. But there is still no great way to stay in touch with a group of friends. I have groups on iMessage, Telegram, GroupMe, and WhatsApp but they are pretty spread out and inconsistent. Every time I go to an event, a new group forms. I wish there was a core app where I captured some of my groups of friends and we stuck there and stayed in touch better.
- interest groups — I still miss AOL chat rooms. (A/S/L anyone?) It was fun to go in, meet people, form tribes. Facebook groups and Slack groups serve some of this purpose, but discovery is bad and the use cases aren’t that common yet. I think there can be network where we go to talk all the time with the people we share the most interests with and not bug all of our other friends on social networks. This might be the same platform as for group conversations too.
- better self expression — geocities, myspace both had one thing in common — every page you went to was radically different. It was personal. It was emotional. It was expressive. You knew a lot about someone as soon as you visited their page and it loaded even if annoying music started playing. In today’s world, all we have are feeds of content. Feeds of someone’s latest thoughts don’t tell you nearly as much about what they care about. In the MySpace days, everyone was a coder copying and pasting crazy CSS lines and embed codes to decorate their page. I’d love to see us getting back to a more expressive world.
- preserving all the content we make — more pictures were taken in 2015 than in the entire 20th century. more videos too. With so much content flowing through, we have to be able to preserve the best stuff and have reasons to come back to it. Whether it’s more screens to view this content (connecting to a screensaver on a TV is so complicated), just a way to save and persist this content and manage it (dropbox? what do you use?), and more. We don’t share everything we capture, and those we do are often shared in a fleeting moment. How about a 1 month wrap up, a 1 week wrap up with more interesting stories? I’d be more interested to look at anything that my friends spend time creating and assembling than just their latest snap or instagram.
This is just the tip of the iceberg — I’m sure there are a ton of new things that will happen over the coming years. And every time we think the big companies have “won”, there comes a paradigm shift that changes everything. It might be some form of VR / AR as new places we experience content, but it feels like next year is just going to be the beginning (and I need to stop getting headaches when I spend too long in VR).
I’m very excited for what 2016 and beyond will bring!