What you need to know about the new world of social

Huge changes are suddenly taking place in the world of social media. It's time to throw away old assumptions about how social communication works.

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We've been talking about the attention economy for years. The idea is that social content — from tweets to blog posts to YouTube videos — is available free, but monetized through advertising.

Attention economics treats human attention as finite and scarce, a battleground of competition for everything that demands attention. In this world view, Instagram competes directly against streaming TV. A book competes directly against TikTok. The internet competes directly with your family. All for the limited currency of attention.

The old adage, often associated with Facebook, is that if you're not paying for it then you are the product, not the customer. Facebook's business model is the selling of user attention to advertisers, who are the actual customers.

For two decades, certain types of content were "free." Most news content was free. Blogs were free. Newsletters were free. Social posts were free. The motivation by content creators was to direct eyeballs to other monetization schemes — advertising, for-pay content, sponsorships, affiliate links, products, services and paid memberships.

But the free-everything era started cracking a few years ago. The big newspapers abandoned their advertising-only models in favor of paywalls. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic — all the major publications referencing the Northeastern United States put up paywalls. In most cases, you could read a few articles free, then you had to pay to read further.

Then "the trades" turned pro. The Information launched eight years ago with a radical idea — paywalled tech journalism. Other quality publications followed suit, including IDG Insider Pro.

Bloggers and journalists and business leaders started gravitating to Medium, and they paywalled that site.

Podcasts had been advertiser supported for many years. Then when media organizations like Slate launched podcasts, they decided to paywall "bonus editions." Individual podcasters like Sam Harris followed suit, offering free podcasts with bonus material to paid subscribers.

Three years ago Substack launched. The idea of Substack was to offer writers an easy way to publish and monetize newsletters. Many prominent journalists quit their day jobs and are now making a living selling email newsletters.

Then, in February, the most surprising monetization move: Twitter announced to investors that it would launch a feature called "Super Follows," where Twitter users could charge $4.99 per month for bonus tweets available exclusively to paid "Super Followers." (The company also said they would experiment with putting its Tweetdeck interface behind a paywall.)

So much content that used to be free now costs money.

But like attention itself, the money available from content consumers willing to pay is limited. So every new paywalled source of content now competes with every other source.

We still have the attention economy and tons of free content. But now we have an extensive and growing paywalled content economy that lives alongside it.

The rise of non-addictive social

Besides the monetization of social content, another curious trend has crept up on us: the rise of non-addictive social.

The social universe hit peak addiction with the rise and dominance first of Instagram, then TikTok. Users of these services often feel compelled to check for new content several times per hour, and the algorithms that drive them are designed to drive compulsive engagement.

But in recent months, three social services have arisen that are explicitly non-addictive.

Two of them suggest the coming rise of social audio — Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces are social services that enable people to talk with voice only — no video — in moderated chat rooms. Clubhouse, which is invite only, is way ahead of Twitter on the robustness of features and in users of social audio; Twitter Spaces, which is still in "beta," is way ahead of Clubhouse on the construction of social graphs (because Spaces just uses existing Twitter accounts and their followers) and also ahead of Clubhouse on the rollout of Android support, which Twitter has promised for this month (March).

Facebook is also reportedly exploring options for adding social audio.

These services have more buzz than any other social site, and yet they are utterly devoid of addictive content — which is to say the kind of artificial, staged, performative, prurient content that makes Instagram and TikTok so addictive, and, to a lesser extent, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat.

But the most aggressively anti-addictive social site by far is a new social photo app called Dispo. The Dispo app looks and works like a disposable film camera from the 80s. A tiny viewfinder lets you frame your pictures. You can turn the flash on or off and zoom in or out (literally the only options for controlling photos). And you socially share entire “rolls” of “film.”

Just like with a film camera, you have to wait to see your pictures. You're not allowed to see your own Dispo pictures until the next day at 9am. You also can't edit them, or apply filters to specific pictures. (The app is invite only.)

Dispo has a social component. You can share "rolls" with friends, and those friends can like and comment on your pictures. You can categorize photos around interests, and people with similar interests can discover and follow you.

The unique features are all about preventing you from doing things to your own photos. You can't see them until the next day. You can't edit them. On the social site, you can't post any outside pictures (no memes). You can only post pictures you took with the Dispo app.

The lead designer for Dispo told me these restrictions are, in fact, a big part of the benefit. She explained that "media-first social media" is "not fun for us anymore, it's an oppressive anxiety-ridden compulsion/addiction."

Specifically, when people get together, they take pictures, then immediately start obsessing over those photos. They feel compelled to crop and edit those pictures to keep up with the amazing lives of others on social media sites like Instagram.

Dispo is aggressively non-addictive by design. You can't obsess over your photos while you're taking them. You have to delay gratification over your social photos.

You can't edit your photos. You snap them and what you snap is what you get. No obsessively fabricating lighting, colors or visual elements that were not there in the original picture.

And because photos aren't visible or sharable until 9am the next day, there's no need to check the social site constantly for new pictures. Most are posted in the morning after 9am.

It's unclear, and largely irrelevant, whether Clubhouse, Spaces, Facebook's social audio or Dispo succeed specifically. What's important is the rise of non-addictive social services.

What these trends mean for business

The rise of paywalled social content and non-addictive social sites means that it's time to throw away all assumptions about how business uses social for engagement, customer service, marketing, advertising and promotion.

The future of social looks like the attention economy and the dollar economy will co-exist as currencies for access to social content. And non-addictive social content rewrites the rules for how business messaging is to be inserted into the collective social media consciousness.

This new world of social will present new challenges and new opportunities, which we will address in this space as the way forward becomes clear.