The Presence Shortage

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM

[TL;DR: Clubhouse and WallStreetBets are all symptoms of the same underlying product need.]

There is a global shortage of intimacy. Physical riots, virtual riots (/r/WallStreetBets), Discord, Peloton, Clubhouse, and others are all on the rise. People can’t see other people, and there’s now a shortage of intimacy. The Internet can feed information, entertainment, and employment, but it can’t give you the sense of being truly with others. Yet. I think that’s what’s fueling a few trends.

1. Risk Intimacy: WallStreetBets

Physical presence has real risk. You make yourself vulnerable to towards another person: they’re in your space. As a result, I think one automatically feels deeper kinship. There’s risk! They might slap you!

There is no risk in Zoom. I can close the laptop and the person will disappear. This is why video allows you to see counterparties, but it doesn’t transmit presence. They don’t feel like they’re by your side.

Risk + synchronous communication == close presence. When the pandemic started, online poker surged. People want to be with other people, and the best you can do is replace the natural risk with synthetic forms of danger. This gets you a much deeper sense of presence then VR will ever offer. You can probably guess where I’m about to take this.

WallStreetBets is a social network with risk. And it works exceptionally well. The nonsensical nature of the trades serve to further enhance the pious nature of the riot. Everyone thinks this is crazy! Only we get it! Let’s do it together! WSB is iPhone-level execution at a social network that achieves the conspiratorial effervescence enjoyed from seeing other people in the real world, using synthetic risk.

2. Vocal Intimacy: Clubhouse

WSB isn’t about making money, and Clubhouse isn’t about hearing content, it’s about being with others. It’s filling a very human need of being with other people at the same time, by hearing their voice. Try joining a Clubhouse room in another language; I find I still get half the value, and I think that speaks about the true product being sold.

Once you become acquainted with a vocal brand, it becomes cognitively easy and joyful to listen to them, especially if other people are doing it together. A live acapella concert.

There is a soupcon of risk in that it’s live. You don’t know what will happen next. I think this is secondary; the main mechanism of mirth is that you’re all listening together. (Much of the risk is on the speakers experience: they have a live heartbeat metric – listener count – for their interestingness. Traditionally a feedback loop this brutal was experienced only in standup comedy. It’ll be interesting to see how this evolves content over time.)

3. Messaging Intimacy: ???

If Clubhouse is for the people that go to bars, what’s Clubhouse for nerds at the library? Something more textual, more information-dense, more introverted.

Maybe the next race is towards browsing and messaging experiences that give you a similar sense of presence. Mark Zuckerberg describes the pre-Facebook Internet was much less about people. Until Facebook. I imagine there will be a similar dichotomy, where the “after” Internet feels very lonely compared to one with ambient presence.

Maybe this is IRC, but I imagine we could do better. The typing… presence indicator was created in 1980. We just landed a helicopter on Mars and used mRNA to fix a global pandemic – much has changed since! All sorts of interesting low-hanging fruit here given the modern technology stack we now have.