“And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you go and chuck out the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!” He laughed. “Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!”
- Mustapha Mond
Durian’s quote to ponder: “Perhaps 7 second dopamine hits are the modern soma”
Happy Thanksgiving to our U.S. readership where we saw an influx last week; many thanks to Byrne Hobart for the shout-out. For my SEA & India readers, please check out his newsletter The Diff for quality writing.
This week, we explore:
Status games in the 21st century: the looming mental health lash and how platforms can evolve
The pivot to video-first social with a focus on network topology; Kuaishou - the bustling village square in the cloud
More Kuaishou, Less TikTok: an overly romanticized take on why I’m team Kuaishou & why other platforms should pay attention as we collectively push past “peak status”
As Eugene Wei detailed extensively in his now canonical piece - Status as a Service - humans are status seeking monkeys. Whether through the school we attended, the clothes we wear, the business card we hold, the partner we have, the niche scientific journal in which we aspire to be published, we all fall prey to status games. It’s in our DNA.
Social media just makes it more efficient and more quantifiable. It turns up the heat. Instead of competing in your high school parking lot or your college dorm or in your local publication, status games are being played at internet scale, 24/7, with real-time feedback.
What started out as “platforming the everyman”, as “giving a voice to those without”, as “giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” has since morphed into a deranged online hunger games. Views, likes, friends, followers and subscribers - a real time scorecard hung on a global jumbotron projecting your ranking in the world hierarchy.
The negative mental health impacts of this chronic comparison have been well documented - perhaps none more vocally than NYU professor Jonathan Haidt. Like the public backlash and regulatory crackdown on cigarettes or fast-food and the ensuing fitness craze, a mental health lash is now looming. From documentaries like The Social Dilemma, to scientific studies detailing the links between increased usage and depression, to rising suicide rates among teenage girls, the enthusiasm for unbridled connectivity and the accompanying saturation of relative comparison is slowing down. The pendulum is losing momentum.
From a resurgence of spirituality and meditation, to surging clinical trials in mental health, to a psychedelic renaissance, to the #deleteFacebook movement, to a budding garden of apps like Calm and Headspace, the physical fitness craze will be joined or outpaced by a second wave in mental health. COVID only exacerbated the existing mental health pandemic already creeping through households globally.
It turns out replacing real human relationships with a doom-scroll, dopamine hits, a follower graph, and a 24/7 status scoreboard may have consequences on mental health - especially for young people. Banning these amazing tools for creativity, communication, and expression is not the answer, but perhaps - similar to taking the “super size” option off the menu - we will collectively decide tweaks are necessary to limit the onset of mental diabetes.
Crucially though, not all social media platforms are created equal. Topology matters. The shape of the connections matter. The monetization matters. The products, the features, the modes of communication, the algorithmic amplification… it all matters.
This is not another social media hit piece, but more as a case study for how our favorite status-as-a-service platforms can evolve around the edges to foster more healthy engagement. In 2020, consumers have shown they are prone to activism. As more negative mental health data surfaces, I expect a combination of regulatory guardrails and collective stigmatization to push users towards platforms which optimize differently.
While individually we optimize for status, I’m wondering if collectively we can push towards platforms that optimize for something more fulfilling.
Maybe what I’m saying is the world needs a little more Kuaishou and a little less TikTok.
The Forgotten Prince
For the two of you that have been in a cryogenics chamber this past year, TikTok (Douyin in China) is the short form video platform which has taken the world by storm. Its parent company Bytedance boasts an “app factory” churning out a seemingly disconnected stable of apps tied together by an impressive backend: a powerful recommendation engine to surface content specifically tailored to each user.
I’m not one to reinvent the wheel. If you want the full write-up please check out Turner Novak’s post. If you want a detailed analysis of the product and the growth flywheel, I highly recommend Eugene Wei’s TikTok & the Sorting Hat and Seeing Like An Algorithm. (Eugene - affiliate fees are due on the 1st :)
Kuaishou, on the other hand, is less well known in western circles but is Douyin’s primary competitor in China. Launching as a GIF sharing tool in 2011, Kuaishou evolved into a pioneer in live-streaming and short-form video in China. The below stats as of June 30, 2020 speak for themselves:
Video was always the future. Technological constraints ensured a slow evolution - a crawl, walk, run cadence between text, pictures, and videos. But video was inevitable. It’s how we are wired. It’s more… human. 302m daily active users opening the app 10x to spend a total of 85+ minutes per day - all creating or consuming video - is proof a new king is on the throne. A king in the early innings of his reign:
From a product perspective, Kuaishou is what Facebook would have been if it was built from scratch in 2010+ for a video-first, mobile world. Upon opening the app, you are met with a dual thumb-nail home screen which presents a scrolling series of short videos which can be explored based on 1) who you follow or 2) what is trending or 3) what is featured (essentially a rip off of TikTok’s single screen consumption format).
For the unfamiliar, the above snapshot is a dramatic over simplication of the product which, in reality, is a more messy collage of content. Each swipe revealing new creators based on preference, or “channels” based on content category, or live-streaming feeds interacting with hosts in real time, or eCommerce shops with local merchants, or multi-party chatrooms. The discovery is endless.
Just everyday people. Doing life. Much of it live. All video.
The company monetizes primarily through online gifting - users tipping live-streamers or content creators in real time. Advertising services and facilitating eCommerce are other key revenue drivers. What has emerged is a complex, messy organism - more closely resembling the hyper-local and often mundane connections of everyday life. Not a series of professional performers curated to your exact tastes projecting to millions, but a bustling village square in the cloud.
More Kuaishou, Less TikTok
Editors note: I will exaggerate the differences below a bit to make my point. In reality, the platforms have many similarities - from the product, to aspects of the topology, to monetization, but diagnosing the differences - even just in relative terms - is what is interesting and can provide hints for a contrarian take on the direction of social in the coming decades.
While both are leading short-form & live-streaming platforms supplying similar services, in many ways, Kuaishou is the anti TikTok. As discussed above, the differences - in topology, in the shape of the nodes, in which content is amplified, in how content is monetized - are crucial.
TikTok / Douyin started in urban centers, Kuaishou took off in tier 3 & tier 4 cities
TikTok surfaces content algorithmically, Kuaishou has more social emphasis
TikTok optimizes for the best, single most entertaining piece of content, Kuaishou often surfaces local, everyday streamers with ~10 people watching
TikTok primarily monetizes through ads, Kuaishou primarily monetizes through gifting & eCommerce
TikTok - like Twitter, and increasingly Instagram - is a one-to-many platform for influencers, Kuaishou is more community driven with 8 billion pairs of mutual follows and 26% of users also creating content
TikTok optimizes for dopamine hits for the users & status for the creators, Kuaishou is more about exploration, discovery and facilitating everyday interaction
Kuaishou’s founders birthed the platform under the philosophy that “everyone’s stories are worth chronicling”. This paradigm is very different from the A/B testing of the TikTok recommendation engine - which sorts individuals by tastes and ruthlessly replicates only those videos which continually win in the Darwinian Colosseum of swipes; the epitome of the power-laws to which internet content always seems to gravitate:
In fact, TikTok is the first platform to skip the inconvenient social component altogether to surface content purely on interest. The messiness of “friends” replaced by the absolute best 7 second dopamine hit possible. The modern soma. Facebook’s transition to a newsfeed was similar - a movement away from friends, towards amplifying ever more “engaging” content through the newsfeed.
Don’t get me wrong. Kuaishou is far from perfect, and suffers from the same challenges of non-productive doom scrolling, questionable accounting and grey content which has gotten other livestreaming platforms in trouble. It’s obviously not a replacement for real world interaction.
However, the platform just seems more real. A hustling merchant trying on coats. A hot pot dinner with friends. A 21-year-old girl chatting through relationship drama.
Perhaps video is a less polarizing medium. Perhaps it’s the live element - which forces authenticity. Perhaps its internet censorship in China which stamps out divisive content. Perhaps Chinese people are simply more interested in the day to day life of their neighbors as opposed to another filtered celebrity.
I’m not sure.
But I think two things matter a lot:
Monetization through gifting and eCommerce seem to incentivize healthier connection vs pure “engagement” in ad-driven models and
The network topology seems to be genuinely more distributed - a strategic choice to algorithmically surface both videos with 50m views and chat rooms with 7 people. A focus on discovery, an appreciation for the average, and an abundance of mutual follows using a medium that is often real time:
The hyper-localization just feels more intimate. It more closely mimics real interactions - which I imagine provide more fulfillment than fleeting status game highs. An example of a technological tool which reflects authentic human experience with less emphasis on the status treadmill.
I know this sounds like a cheesy and ridiculous take given Instagram’s and TikTok’s stratospheric rise, but this is a decade long prediction. I’m sensing a Gen Z burnout on the horizon after a colossal over-saturation. More mindfulness, less likes.
Perhaps the best defense is curtailing the worst abuses of human vulnerability and tweaking the arenas in which we play our hyper-charged status games. Maybe versions 2.0 of social will find the one thing humans crave more than status is connection.
Maybe a better set of tools can help us play better games.
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