"Like, when was a club cool for three generations?"
Ranah Edelin asks this question, while clanging cable cars zip past his Union Square office in San Francisco. We're discussing the incredible rise of a new crop of social media platforms that many of us over the age of 30 have yet to use in any meaningful way and, if we’re being honest, might have trouble even appreciating. A Rhapsody founding team member and serial entrepreneur who, since last May, has acted as CEO of social media platform We Heart It, Edelin's latest endeavor counts some impressive numbers: 25 million monthly users, predominately under the age of 25 (80%) and female (70%).
With his rhetorical question, he's alluding to Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Instagram and Pinterest. And if you're talking social media, you also can't forget YouTube and Tumblr and Quora. And now we’re all apparently supposed to be excited about Snapchat and probably also Pheed. Okay, fine. But We Heart It, Wanelo, The Hunt (none of which, I learned, enjoy being compared to one another)? Do we really need yet more places to connect, discover, inspire, and express ourselves?
Evidence that millions of teens and young adults are leaving Facebook just as users flock to highly visual, commerce-friendly platforms and an uptick in investor dollars in the space indicates that the answer is a resounding yes. When it comes to coolness, it seems, three years is a lifetime. At least for younger users. Or, put another poignant way: social media's future. And it makes sense, especially for anyone who’s trying to balance her great aunt’s Facebook presence with youthful yearnings to document last Saturday night, while also steering clear from judgment and bullying from one’s peers and, also, register opinions on what’s happening in, say, Ukraine. It’s exhausting social stuff to navigate, even for those of us with fully developed pre-frontal cortexes.
"These places where their networks are smaller and more contained and around topics of interest or around smaller tighter friend groups, I think those feel easier for teens," says Amanda Lenhart, senior researcher and director of teens and technology for the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
Easier, yes, and probably also significantly cooler. Rejecting dominant cultural norms, and aspiring to better things is, after all, just about as classically teenage as it gets.
The result of that shift, happening as an earlier wave of successful social media platforms matures, may be part of the reason Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures dropped $10 million in series B funding this month into social shopping platform The Hunt. The service claims more than half a million monthly active users and 2 million "hunts" for products started each week. Most of them are young women with the time on their hands to shop online for fun.
It’s also partly why Wanelo has reportedly been valued at $100 million based on funding last year and has grown from 1 million registered users at the end of 2012 to more than 10 million a year later. We Heart It also attracted investor attention in 2013, raising $8 million and bringing in Edelin and fellow Rhapsody founding team member Dave Williams as president to guide the company, started by Fabio Giolito as a side project in his native Brazil in 2008.
But teen dissatisfaction and a subsequent backlash against first-wave social media is not the whole story.
Next gen social media platforms, for the moment at least, not only lack annoying adult users, but they also sidestep the drama that can bubble up from familiar hubs such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. A large part of the reason: the comments and status updates that were once inherent parts of all social media are giving way to tags, likes, hearts, and similarly minimalist forms of communication and personalization. Digital planes where positivity is really the only way to communicate and it’s systematically impossible to disseminate FOMO, cyber bullying, or humble brags? Maybe the kids are right. At the very least, it ties back into something many younger social media users crave.
Of their habits on traditional social media platforms, Lenhart says, "A lot of teens just told us that they appreciated the ways in which they could share images, they could feel creative, and they got a lot of positive feedback."
At the same time, advances in mobile and cloud technology are making it possible for people to capture, enhance, and share images more quickly and easily than ever before. The result, says Edelin, is a "visual renaissance" where communication through imagery is once again becoming a more pervasive force than text-based conversations.
"Our brains are still wired to process visual information much faster [than text]," says Edelin. "There’s a reason why people say a picture’s worth a thousand words, because you can just pull in so much information and neurologically, there’s data that says it’s 60,000 times faster than text. So that has always existed in humans."
That's true: Paleolithic cave paintings in Spain and France date back an estimated 40,000 years. Before modern language, there were only images. Could it be that technology will take us back to a time where we are once again able to communicate primarily through images?
Before we get to such lofty ideas, consider the fact that among the most popular images on We Heart It this month is the abs of an extremely tan gentleman in what appear to be pastel pink jeans, and a meme that says, "Whatever. I’ll just date myself."
Still, it’s hard to argue that users are there for reasons beyond simply amassing followers and buying things. So what, exactly, are they doing? That’s where things get complicated. Unlike social commerce platforms such as Fancy or Luvocracy—to name two places where products are oohed and ahhed over and acquired with the least amount of friction possible—this latest generation of social platforms thrives on user intent that’s more socially driven than merely motivated by commercial lust.
"Self-expression is absolutely critical to this," Wanelo’s founder and CEO Deena Varshavskaya told me when we spoke about her company’s growth not long ago. "The things we buy create our physical worlds. So the things we wear, the things we put in our houses, all of that literally is expressing our creative side."
Yes, she initially started building the site as part of a personal quest to make shopping easier, but users began treating it as much more than a shopping tool. To make communicating easier, the company added a "stories" option that allows members to create short posts that can be shared throughout the community.
"You can find out a lot about a person from their Wanelo," says Varshavskaya.
Identity and creative expression are subjects that Edelin turns to frequently:
"People love shopping, don’t get me wrong. But it almost feels like there’s an emotional core that comes through very strongly with We Heart It that’s consistent with a younger more expressive demographic."
On The Hunt, shopping is a major component, but it exists within an inherently social and somewhat gamified architecture that calls on a highly active 15% of users to personally track down and suggest products as a way to help others while boosting their own style cred as they triumph over increasingly challenging hunts.
"This generation having grown up on the web and social media, they’re constantly looking for new ways to express themselves with things that are fun, entertaining and unique," says The Hunt’s cofounder and CEO Tim Weingarten.
It’s more than obvious that investors believe this combination of entertainment, self-expression, and commerce is big business. How best to make that happen is less clear. Affiliate deals are one option, and they're at play on Wanelo and also The Hunt, where users can post images of everyone from high-profile bloggers to random passersby and let the crowd offer up suggestions for exact matches or similar items at their preferred price range. But that alone doesn’t seem like enough to satisfy investors.
"Ultimately the business model for the company, whatever it ends up being, it’s going to be additive to the experience and not intrusive," says Alex Gurevich of Javelin Venture Partners, a backer of The Hunt.
Edelin’s We Heart It has yet to introduce its monetization strategy, but already coaches brands on how to use its platform effectively and alludes to future experiments with promoted content on the horizon.
"We haven’t turned on advertising, but you can imagine that that would happen," says Edelin. "You can imagine a world where these are the organic search results, and there may be other search results or there can be other promoted things that show up that can be monetized."
The future, in other words, is bright—and green.
[Image: Flickr user Pixel-Pusher]