There Are Only Two Types of Social Apps

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Dear subscribers,

“Social media” actually refers to two very different types of apps:

  • Social: “I want to connect with others.”

  • Media: “I want to be entertained.”

An app that pursues both at once is destined to lose.

That’s the argument that Preston Attebery makes after studying the founding stories of top social apps. In the interview below, Preston and I discuss:

  1. The difference between media and messaging (social) apps

  2. Why media apps tend to focus on one format (e.g., short video, live audio)

  3. Why messaging apps mix multiple formats together

Preston closes the interview by sharing what he thinks could be the next big format in social. Read on!


Introduction

Can you share a little bit about yourself?

In 2018, I was working on BlockCities, a blockchain game that lets people collect digital buildings and build a city. I pivoted it into a 3D social space before winding it down to join Playbyte.

At Playbyte, I led product to let people make mobile games with emojis and simple blocks. You could set up a profile and feed to let others play your games. 

Now I’m working on a new company :)

I loved your post on media vs. messaging apps. Can you explain the difference?

When I first started working in social, I researched the founding story of every major social app to better understand what works.

I realized that what we call “social” actually addresses two different needs - the need to be entertained (media) and the need for connection (messaging). 

Media apps are about entertainment. There is usually one dominant media app per format (e.g., Twitter for text, Instagram for photos, and TikTok for short videos). Each app competes to host the most immersive content from creators. 

Messaging apps are about connection. People have different circles that they want to connect with (e.g., iMessage for friends and family, Discord for interest groups, and Tinder for dating). These apps typically support multiple formats (e.g., text, images, audio, video) because people want to connect in different ways.

Why is it hard for a social app to excel at both entertainment and connection? 

It’s hard enough to win in entertainment or connection - trying to do both is a recipe for failure. 

Even top apps started by addressing one need before extending to the other one:

  • Snapchat started as a messaging app and then added media with Spotlight.

  • Instagram started as a media app and then added messaging with DMs.


Media apps: “I want to be entertained.”

Let’s talk about short video. Why do you think Instagram and YouTube have gone all-in on this format to compete with TikTok?

They’ve gone all-in because short video is the most immersive mobile format right now. The entertainment value of a TikTok short video is light years ahead of an Instagram square photo. 

On mobile, I would argue that short video is even more entertaining than Netflix. A short video needs to entertain users in a few seconds or they’ll change the channel.

It’s also interesting to observe that a social graph doesn’t matter that much for media apps long term.

Yes, Facebook and Instagram are built on the idea that the most entertaining content comes from friends.

While friend content certainly has subjective value, it can’t compete long term in entertainment value with top creator content served by an algorithm that can quickly learn your interests.

So how do you think the short video space will play out? Do you think YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels will surpass TikTok?

No, I think it’s too late. 

It’s a classic case of innovator’s dilemma. New media apps need to ride the wave of a new format and market.

For example, Instagram created a new format in square photos and scaled during the rise of the iPhone. On the other hand, TikTok has been working on short video for 5+ years, while Instagram and YouTube have largely ignored the growing market of performative video content.

Now both platforms are trying to copy TikTok’s best-in-class creation tools and content recommendation engine.  But TikTok is now moving to live shopping shows and other use cases pioneered by Douyin (China’s TikTok). 

I think Instagram will remain a valuable business for a long time, but the next ten years belong to Bytedance (TikTok’s parent company).

Let me play devil’s advocate here. Instagram was successful in copying Stories from Snapchat. How is short video any different?

Snapchat invented Stories, but the feature makes more sense in a media app (Instagram) than a messaging app (Snapchat). If you make a story, you want it to reach as many people as possible to get that dopamine rush.

TikTok has been a media app from day one.

Let’s talk about social audio. You wrote that Clubhouse is a media app. But, I don’t think social audio is anywhere near as entertaining as short video, nor is it a great lean-back experience compared to podcasts. Do you think social audio is more about connection? What’s the future of this space?

Clubhouse started as a place to hang out and talk. But for most people, it’s now more of a media app where listeners tune in to hear speakers say something interesting. 

From an entertainment perspective, I don’t think social audio is as immersive as video. It’s also harder to produce because it’s live. 

I think Clubhouse should focus on building meaningful audio tools (e.g., voice filters, soundboards) similar to what TikTok did for video creation. Creators need to be able to easily produce great live audio shows that are entertaining for listeners.

So what format is more entertaining than short video on mobile? Mobile gaming is now an $85B industry, is there potential there for a media app?

Yes, mobile gaming is already huge, but we don’t have a UGC mobile gaming platform.

The reality is that games are becoming the main social activity for most kids. So instead of browsing Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok, they’re just going to play games.

Interesting! We’ll get back to gaming later, let’s talk about messaging apps next.


Messaging apps: “I want to connect with others.”

Why do you think messaging apps support multiple formats while media apps typically start with one?

Messaging apps are used for connection, and people want to connect in different ways. If you’re getting to know someone, you’ll want to trade a few text messages first. Eventually, you’ll move to photos, audio, and video to deepen the relationship. At some point, you’ll want to meet in person.

In contrast, media apps excel when they focus on a single format. This makes it easier for creators to make content and for consumers to find what they’re looking for. If a media app tries to tackle multiple formats at once, it’ll quickly become a chaotic mess.

Facebook started as a place for people to connect with friends and classmates. But I think Feed is a crappy way to connect with others compared to messaging.

Yeah, I think the News Feed was never about meaningful connection. 

Facebook quickly realized that it’s a media app about posting content that a person’s network can see.

For connection, people prefer private and group interactions vs. public feed walls.

Do you think messaging apps are less winner takes all?

I think people have different circles that they want to connect with, and they generally want to keep these circles separate. For example, you might use a separate app for connecting with:

  1. Friends and family

  2. Interest groups

  3. Dating

  4. Professionals

It makes sense that messaging apps compete to win in these circles vs. formats.


The next big thing for social

Let’s close with what you think is the next big thing for social. You mentioned gaming, what do you see there?

Currently, gaming is highly fragmented with siloed social networks in each experience. You have Fortnite and Animal Crossing and Rocket League with their own messaging services and “creative modes” but no way to talk or build across games. Discord is a good stand-in but isn’t deeply integrated into the games themselves.

Fornite pioneered cross-platform gaming — one consistent experience across a multitude of devices. The next phase of gaming is a single social platform across a multitude of games — the single spot you go to hangout with friends and play any kind of game. That’s what I’m excited about.


If you enjoyed this, follow Preston on Twitter and check out his Substack.

I plan to write more about why gaming is the next social frontier, including interviews with a16z and Roblox. Subscribe below to be the first to read future posts: