Snapchat? Instagram? Twitch?
Nope. Fortnite. The wildly popular online video game has quietly become one of the planet’s biggest social networks. Not in a traditional sense, of course. Fortnite Battle Royale is, first and foremost, a last-man-standing, shooter-style game, especially popular among teens and twentysomethings. (Disclaimer here: I’m not a hardcore Fortnite player, though I know plenty of people who are.) In the game, 100 players at a time jump out of a flying bus and onto an island. Combatants are left to duke it out, Hunger Games-style, with a variety of weapons, armor, “healables,” and other tools at their disposal. Though the premise is violent, the game itself really isn’t, with none of the gore or blood of more graphic offerings. Eventually, the final combatant claims the coveted “Victory Royale.” All told, each match lasts around 20 minutes.
But while players are waiting to be airlifted to the next battle–and even while all this slaying is going on–they’re also chatting. A lot. Built-in voice chat encourages a running dialogue between players, who can go it solo or join up with friends. And conversation isn’t all about “chug jugs” and “shield potions.” Friends talk about their day at school. New relationships form as players interact. In this respect, Fortnite has evolved into the classic “third space”–a place that’s not home and not school, where kids can get together and socialize on their own terms. It’s essentially the new mall (and 1 in 4 players is female, a gender ratio rare in online gaming).
The game is also a massive money maker, boasting a $3 billion profit in 2018. While it’s free to play across platforms (something unique for a AAA game with a massive budget), Fortnite makes money from optional in-game purchases by players. Average annual revenue per user (ARPU) is reported to be nearly $100. For perspective, this is more than Google ($27), Facebook ($19), Twitter ($8) and Snapchat ($3), combined.
This got me thinking. In Fortnite, users have found a platform far more addictive–and far more social, for that matter–than many social networks. So what lessons can the traditional social networks out there take from all of this?
Socializing is way more fun when you’re doing stuff
This seems so obvious when you think about it. From the dawn of time, people have socialized while doing something else–over a meal, on the job, while shopping, at church, etc. Then social networks came along and introduced the idea of “being social” as something you do in isolation–indeed, at the expense of anything else. The main thing to do on Facebook is scroll through your feed alone. Ditto for Instagram and Twitter. In some ways, it’s an eerie suspension of real life, rather than an extension of it.
But on Fortnite, socializing is a natural corollary to something else. You’re waiting for the battle bus to pick you up for the next game and busting dance moves. Or you’re frantically trying to build a fort or ramp or tower. And the conversation just flows. “One minute I’ll be talking about my day, some coding problem, or something else, then it’s interrupted by me screaming, ‘WATCH OUT FOR THE SNIPER AT 250,’ and everyone scrambling to stay alive,” Charged blogger and tech writer Owen Williams explains.
This same notion of “social” as a complement to something else rather than the primary focus is also evident in the success of Twitch, where 15 million daily active users spend an average of 90 minutes every day tuning in to chat while watching other people play video games. Not that this idea is altogether lost on traditional social networks: Facebook Live and other live-streaming platforms, where users are able to watch and comment, come closest to replicating this dynamic. It’s just that we need a lot more of it.
A real social network builds (not breaks) relationships
It’s been harrowing to see how easily social networks can turn, well, anti-social. Trolls are the bane of any online platform, but they can flourish on traditional social channels. Bullying and hateful speech are a sad part of the everyday experience, and Twitter and Facebook have both gone to lengths in recent years to try to weed out the worst offenders. Then there’s the deeper question of how “social” social networks are to begin with. On so many platforms, the user experience can easily turn into an exercise in narcissism–projecting a photoshopped version of your life in a bid to collect likes while secretly envying other people’s updates.
To all appearances, however, Fortnite is doing something very different. Williams explains “how much better it feels to participate in a connected experience that isn’t just arguing with internet trolls all day. I can mute anyone I want and focus on talking with my friends, connecting with them more often than ever before.” The New Yorker‘s Nick Paumgarten writes how the game can even “bring out something approaching gentleness” as players collaborate to survive. Eric Klopfer, a professor at MIT and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program, observes in the CommonHealth newsletter that Fortnite can actually be critical for building social connections in today’s online world–a boast rarely made of traditional social networks these days. To be clear, Fortnite, like any online game, has its share of trolls who deliberately sabotage game play, as wildly popular YouTube videos attest. But this is categorically different from the bullying and goading seen on social media, where 38% of Americans report encountering trolls every day.
You gotta know the secret handshake: Exclusivity matters
Even though it’s free to play, Fortnite isn’t easy to get into. In fact, lots of people who try it on their own end up leaving in frustration. But this steep learning curve is arguably by design. To really get the game as a noob, you need to be initiated by someone else, i.e., a player who’s already in on the secret and understands the platform’s ins and outs. This exclusivity element–as all secret societies, VIP clubs, and cults know–can be a powerful community builder. It bears remembering that Facebook started as a Harvard-only platform before expanding to other elite universities and only then to the general public.
Snapchat was onto this as well, with a user interface that, at least initially, proved baffling to anyone over 18. In an online world where everything is seemingly accessible to everyone at all times, baking in a sense of exclusivity can be a powerful differentiator and attraction. Too many social networks today try to be all things to all people, reaching out to a bland, cross-generational cohort with bland, forgettable UI, all in an effort to attract as many eyeballs as possible. But does it really have to be that way? Fortnite shows a different path.
Of course, it goes without saying that Fortnite is first and foremost a sophisticated online game. It’s not expressly designed to be a social network, so I don’t want to take this analysis too far. At the same time, Fortnite is hardly free from conflict and controversy. Parents are increasingly up in arms about its addictive qualities, and stories abound of kids abandoning schoolwork, sports, and even sleep to play for hours on end. Indeed, much of what makes Fortnite so sticky–the random rewards, the free access, the ability to customize features–is precisely what social networks have been critiqued for in the past.
But, all that said, Fortnite does offer a vision for a new and radically different kind of social network. At its best, it’s an ever-changing world to learn about and explore, rather than a static, repetitive interface. It’s a space to hang out with and truly connect with friends. It’s a place to actually let your hair down instead of posturing and projecting. Oh yeah, and it’s a lot of fun. Social networks stopped ticking some of these boxes a long time ago. To remain relevant to gen Z and beyond, it may be time they took a few cues from Fortnite.