Understanding Loneliness (Part 2): The Emerging Social Wellness Landscape
Social media has put us in contact – but failed to connect
When they first arrived on the internet block, social networking sites promised a way to better connect with people. Facebook began as a gigantic virtual dorm room for college students; Youtube began as an update on video dating, where the 'you' in Youtube was an invitation for users to upload short videos wistfully talking about their perfect partner; Twitter was meant to function like group texts among co-workers.
Of course, none of these models were lucrative; in fact, they offered no business model at all. The shift towards content-driven business models changed all of that:
The search for profit drove decisions about expanding the user base, remodeling advertising and converting users into market value. Mobile technology and broadband accelerated the capabilities of tech companies to expand their services in new areas, including data harvesting. Personal data were seen as an artifact of time spent on these services, and by simply interacting, online users sloughed off enough residual data to energize a digital economy ravenous for every click, like, share and mouse movement to be aggregated and monetized[...]The result was a digital economy built on engagement, where content farms making “click-bait” became the watchword of the Internet economy.
This new digital economy shifted the original intent of these companies into operating less like vibrant communities and more like digital trade fairs, where every turn leads you to being sold (often without your knowledge of it).
The shift to corporate-driven decision-making is one of several shortcomings that that documentaries like Social Dilemma have sounded the alarm to: the addictive properties baked into the design of these platforms (the so-called "dark patterns") – the infinite scrolls, the notifications; the rabbit holes of misinformation that spread during election cycles; the linkages to negative impacts on mental health; major data breaches that have compromised user privacy.
And there's this paradoxical phenomenon of being "lonely, together" on these platforms. That, in spite of enabling contact with billions of other humans on the planet, these platforms have failed to offer meaningful connection.
The rise of social wellness tech
The shortcomings of these platforms has energized a new wave of social technologies to emerge. These founders, conscientious defectors of sorts, suggest that with the right changes, we can salvage the good of social media to end loneliness and create meaningful connections.
They are positioning themselves as alternatives to existing platforms, with an emphasis on some version of social wellness – on improving the quality of a user's relationship with other people, their neighborhoods, or communities. Some of these are more native to digital platforms, focused on supporting users with people discovery all over the world, whereas others are more focused on revitalizing in-person meetups and deepening intimacy between individuals. None of these really appear to be an outright solution to loneliness – all have scoped the problem down to particular aspects of it.
I've attempted to map these organizations across two axes:
Let's take a guided tour across these quadrants to better understand this booming, exciting – albeit messy – landscape. (You can view the spreadsheet with over 150+ start-ups in this landscape here)
Quadrant 1: Deep Online Connections
In this quadrant, these start-ups are focused on creating platforms, experiences, and products that deepen existing connections.
Some are more focused on creating scaled down, more intimate social networks with friends and family. Capitalizing on the popularity of Clubhouse, Cappuccino lets you share audio stories with your friends and family. In contrast to Clubhouse, however, the goal is less about garnering followers – all content is private – and more on keeping in touch with groups (e.g. past school friends). The app has attracted hundreds of thousands of users and continues to gain traction.
Others are focused on creating live experiences that use intra-community matchmaking to 'engineer serendipity.' Gatheround is a team bonding and community engagement platform for people-focused organizations seeking to build relationships and strengthen teams. The experience is like an online speed-dating service that randomly pairs you with people in your community, while holding a container for you and the broader team to 'gather' and connect.
There are some that are experimenting with the frontiers of new technology like artificial intelligence to engineer software and hardware that simulate factors that foster deep connections. Replika is an AI bot that you can chat with at any time – and have frighteningly real conversations with (Her is here!). Emerge has created powerful, quiet tabletop device that emits ultrasound to form a tactile layer around virtual objects and interactions (so that you can virtually high five your friends – among other things).
Quadrant 2: New Online Connections
Quadrant 2 has a greater emphasis on people discovery – uncovering new people all over the world who you might not otherwise connect with. Some of these are bound by certain criteria (e.g. women only, people in your industry) whereas others are more unbounded and globally focused.
Dialup generated a lot of buzz during the pandemic as a way for people all over the world to connect over a phone call (They even temporarily re-branded themselves to QuarantineChat). After signing up, you can enroll into various topic areas (e.g. books) and then expect to receive a spontaneous call that connects you with another person from any part of the world (I've spoken with people in Phoenix, Rabat, and New York).
Peanut, on the other hand, is an app that constrains the people discovery to women only. What began as a tool for women seeking new mom friends, has evolved into a social network now used by 1.6 million women to discuss a range of topics, from pregnancy and parenthood to marriage and menopause, and everything in between.
With increased reports about older generations being at risk of loneliness, a number of startups have also sprung to connect the old with the young. Concordium is a Harvard-incubated startup focused on cultivating intergenerational relationships through a one-on-one matching process. Goodnight Zoom randomly pairs a curated set of elderly storytellers to children whom they read a bedtime story to – over Zoom!
Quadrant 3: New, IRL Connections
Quadrant 3 startups aim to shift people discovery to in-person interactions.
Much of this activity is concentrated in the co-living space, which aims to create a type of intentional communities that provide shared housing for people with similar values or intentions. Culdesac, for example, aims to create the first parking-lot free rental apartment community in Tempe, Arizona. Removing parking creates ample open space for residents to use their outdoor space as extended living rooms where they can mingle with other residents.
Connection is also marketed as something that can be commissioned. Grandmas2Go connects ‘women of wisdom and experience’ to become volunteer family coaches to support struggling new families to help their children thrive. Cuddlist enables people to hire 'professional cuddlers' who can listen, comfort, console, encourage, and journey with you as they guide you on a 'cuddle session.'
Shared, in-person activities are also positioned as a way to bring new people together. BarkHappy is a social network for dog owners seeking out dog-friendly places, attend (and host) dog-friendly events, and connect with other dogs (and their owners).
Quadrant 4: Deep, IRL Connections
Quadrant 4 startups focus on bringing people together for intentional, (mostly) in-person meetups that lead to powerful, transformative connections.
Most of these meetups are structured with a focus on deep listening and suspending judgment about the people being gathered. HearMe is an on-demand emotional wellness app that connects users to our trained volunteer listeners for instantaneous text chat, anytime and anywhere. Much of this is inspired by the deep listening movement prompted by Urban Confessional, .
Others are more focused on using a host or facilitator to lead a guided experience for a group. Tea with Strangers gathers five people for two hour meetups at a cafe (or some other public place) where a host guides them on a conversational experience.
With party politics creating wedges between Democrats and Republicans, a handful of organizations are emerging to help bridge the divide through the power of meals and guided conversations. Make America Dinner Again host and help guide small dinners among 6-10 guests who have differing political viewpoints.
The Question: Can these 'Whole Foods' variety of apps beat the 'junk food' of social media?
The emerging social wellness landscape is an ever-broadening one, with several organizations taking different strategies to help fill the gap that the social media giants left. In analyzing the range of approaches, it's difficult to derive any sweeping conclusions about which are more 'effective' and impactful.
What's clear, though, is that there's a strong push for experimentation in this space to identify niches audiences disenchanted with existing platforms. Whether they'll effectively transfer them over to their platforms remains an open question; they are facing an uphill battle in moving users from more addictive platforms over to these more wholesome ones.
And this is where I think food metaphors are appropriate. If ways of connecting were types of food, social media would be the junk food that might fill you up (but at the cost of making you feel like shit); these apps might be like Poke bowls – wholesome and what the doctor recommends, but not always the tastiest indulgence.
The aspiration with Multitudes is that it might be like my mom’s home-made enchiladas. Not the healthiest food, but man does that melted cheese and chili taste so damn good. Plus, it’s made with love!
That's the hope, at least.