Push Back on ‘Social Strikes Back’

Tom Nickel
6 min readJan 8, 2021
Contents page, opening graphic

The premise is simple and important. The trials and tribulations of Facebook and the reconsideration of social networks in general might have some people believing that the whole concept of Social is sooo pre-Pandemic.

Andreessen-Horowitz disagrees. The venture capital firm known as a16z released a very imaginatively presented report, December 7, 2020, on the next-generation social networks projected to be emerging soon. According to a16z, we will experience them mostly as new social layers added onto the way we do just about everything.

The opening text underneath the striking intro graphic provides five examples of important areas where we will experience this new social layer:

a powerful acquisition and retention tool for every consumer product, across education, shopping, fitness, food, entertainment, and more

Now we know what Social means to a16Z. It means a layer of experience designed to lure and lock-in consumers. When I think of social media and, for example, fitness, I think of sharing my workout activities with friends, maybe even competing. It is difficult to be aware at all time that consumer media products are devices for aggregating, manipulating, and reselling the consumers who buy them, like me.

My phenomenological experience of exercising with friends in some virtual mode, my view of ‘social,’ does not have to be monetized. Our culture just hasn’t come up with any other reason to go to all the trouble of making the product to enable my social fitness experience.

I appreciate a16Z reminding me of the view that we are fundamentally consumers and that we have value insofar as we buy stuff. Not how I look at it, but since a16Z is in a considerably more influential position than I am, I need to be reminded of it.

When a16Z uses the phrase, ‘acquisition tool,’ it reminds me, ‘oh right, I’m what’s being acquired. That’s me they’re talking about.’ And when they say, retention, they mean ‘make it really hard for me to stop being an acquisition.’

Fair enough. Can’t say I haven’t been warned.

The first article, ‘Community Takes All: The Power of Social+’ makes the simple but powerful point that when community is inherent to the product, growth can be self-driven. The article refers to ‘community’ in this context as an ‘asymmetric advantage,’ (over other products without community baked in).

Like ‘social,’ I feel like my common sense understanding of ‘community’ is fundamentally about people, connection and interaction, but in the a16Z view ‘community’ is a designed aspect infused into the whole everywhere that keeps people glued to a product. This kind of community aids market defensibility and thus should be properly regarded as an instrument of warfare.

As the article states:

No category is really won until the social product is built.”

Winning, holding ground. Pentagon view of the world.

The next article, ‘The Stickiest, Most Addictive, Most Engaging, and Fastest-Growing Social Apps — and How to Measure Them’, features addiction as a primary virtue. My advice — find a less tone deaf term for targeting human vulnerabilities. Internet Gaming Disorder is a recognized mental health disorder under DSM5. Almost half a million people died of opioid overdoses, 1999–2028, according to the CDC.

I have so much to say about, ‘The Holy Grail of Social + Fintech,’ a16Z’s description of the Social-Fintech nuptials, I will have to write another article. Soon. We are fools to believe that there is any purpose to this marriage other than seducing us into more debt for the purpose of bleeding us dry.

I believe the Communist Party of China fully grasps this concept, which is it stopped the world’s largest IPO while it tries to figure out what to do about paying for things on private platforms.

My final comments are directed toward, ‘Meet Me in the Metaverse,’ a space I know well enough to know how much I don’t know. The article, on the other hand, is very sure of itself:

  • Experiences in virtual worlds revolve around Content, (not defined), and
  • There is a predictable growth path for content development

There are four types of Content in this vision, which we will see in this order:

  • professionally developed (now)
  • user generated (starting to emerge)
  • AI-assisted user generated
  • fully AI created

OK, that’s a nice story. But what is Content?

If a family with members living in different parts of the country meets somewhere nice om a Social VR platform for a virtual picnic and everyone hangs out all afternoon having a great time together just talking, is that Content? I’m trying to be clear — is a family picnic in VR an example of ‘user generated Content?’

There could be a gazillion family picnics in VR and that’s just the start of the social ‘use cases’ for the greatest distance communication media technology ever because it defeats distance in many ways.

If a family picnic in VR is not user generated Content, what is it?

What if people have a lot of family picnics and things like it, and it’s not on the a16Z chart at all? Did the picnics still happen?

What if people get together in VR and talk about things that are hard to talk about in the other world, things like personal loss and our own mortality? Is that user generated content?

The reason I ask is that I have been hosting open events since March, 2020 in which hundreds of people, thousands at this point, have talked about everything they’ve lost and their own fears about dying. They’ve talked about personal things sometimes kept inside for decades.

None of it was monetized. It wasn’t streamed. It wasn’t recorded. No tickets were sold. You didn’t have to be member. People in one of several social VR platforms saw an Event on the Daily Events Menu called, ‘Death Q & A,’ and another one called, ‘Saying Goodbye.’ And they still came.

It could only happen on a VR platform in which participants are not commodified, as they inevitably will be on any growth-oriented, shareholder value directed enterprise.

What is not shown on the a16Z Content chart is all the hours of human activity, labor given freely and with love, that would be poured into an open source platform that is user owned in some way. Actually, I don’t think there will be one VR platform in which everything is not monetized. I think there will be several, with different approaches to funding human interaction in VR.

I disagree with the premise of ‘Meet Me in the Metaverse’ that Content can only be generated, produced, or created. Maybe the evolution to all-AI All-the-Time will proceed just as they lay it out.

But there’s more, maybe the best part.

If we provide the right options, people will choose to invest their time and attention in Virtual Worlds designed around the normal, common sense version of ‘social’ — people doing things together, structured and unstructured activities. Without money being part of it. Without the commodification of every nook and cranny of life that the a16Z view presupposes.

I know this is true because I see it every day.

I also know we are in the playground days.

I might also call them the phenomenological days. I’m into the experience of what we do together in VR. The people I’m here with are too; it’s obvious. The way to scale it is to have lots of connected universes in a multiverse. No Category Winner. Lots of right-sized networks.

The a16Z vision has Category Winners and … the rest. If anything else somehow survives, is it still a Loser? I wonder if the Winners will be able to tolerate the rest of us.

I write occasional posts on Sub-Stack, Plain Thoughts about everything other than VR. You can check it out here: https://tnickel32.substack.com/



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos