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The New Social Network (nobody is paying attention to)

Where attention goes, commerce follows. And right now, that's a highway leading into immersive online spaces. It's time do dig in.

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Key takeaways

  • Where attention goes, commerce eventually follows

  • The right frame of reference to understand Roblox is as a social network

  • New social networks form around two things: a new generation of users, and a novel content format

  • Brands that pay attention and position correctly, will reap rewards. Others will play catch up later

Continue reading to get all the deets:

Did you know that Australia moves about 2.7 inches per year? Occasionally, GPS coordinates have to be reset to account for the movement. The last time they did so was in 1994. Australia has moved ≈5 feet northeast since then.

It's a fascinating piece of trivia in its own right, but it's also a useful analogy for shifts that happen so slowly you barely pay attention.

And then, one day, you wake up and realize that the world has changed, and now your plans must, too.

One of the most important shifts in consumer technology right now is the emergence of a new generation of social networks, just as a new generation of internet users is coming online. 

These are the future customers for most brands, and they don't do social media feeds with photos; they do avatars and virtual homes.

Attention 🤝 Commerce

My favorite mental model for understanding digital economies is super simple:

Where attention goes, commerce follows. 

So whenever I see attention shifting to a new destination online, I get curious. And so should you.

Right now, a lot of attention is going into Roblox and a few other game-like platforms. This means that commerce gradually but inevitably follows.

Still, many people ignore, underestimate, or misunderstand these platforms, Roblox and Fortnite in particular. Which makes it difficult to position correctly. The culprit is that people use the wrong frame of reference to understand; "games."

I would argue that the right frame of reference is "social network."

Let's explore:

What is a social network

Let's start with a simple definition of what makes a social network:

  • Users derive value from it through a social graph (offline friends, online friends, people with shared interests), creating a powerful network effect.

  • It's interactive, meaning users derive value by interacting with each other and together.

  • User-generated content fuels the experience.

Roblox fits nicely within this framework. It's also a perfect example of another layer forming on top of the layer cake landscape of social networks.

Layers of Social Networks

Every generation of internet users has had their "native" social network. As new generations come online, new social networks emerge. It forms a layer cake of social networks.

The formation of this stack follows a few key rules:

  • The networks stack on top of each other. A new layer doesn't completely destroy the previous layer, mainly because it attracts a different core user base and because people are multi-networked. Still, there's often a migration of users from an existing to a new layer (for instance, as parents follow their kids to the "new thing")

  • Every new layer attracts the youngest available consumer generation as its core segment.

  • A new social network layer usually forms from the basis of a new type of content. The content format increases in fidelity and immersion. Facebook and Twitter were for text. Instagram for photos. TikTok for video. And now, Roblox (and others) for spatial, immersive socializing.

Roblox is a Social Network

Reasoning from the above two frameworks, let's consider Roblox as another layer of the layer cake. It's a useful frame to understand how the platform might evolve over time.

Roblox is a social network centered around a novel type of user-generated content: interactive 3D spaces.

  • In Roblox, you don't have a profile picture; you have a virtual avatar.

  • In Roblox, you don't have a home feed, you have an actual (virtual) home/house.

  • In Roblox, you don't like other people's photos; you interact with other people's spaces.

So, what happens next? Here are three things I'm paying attention to and will write more about in the future:

  • Brand integration: Existing brands figuring out how to integrate Roblox into their digital strategy. This will be different from Facebook and Instagram because the core content type (interactive experiences) is so different. It's also different because avatar customization in Roblox enables brands to monetize existing brand equity in new ways (virtual items). 

  • Format-native brands: Instagram brought a highly visual, extremely effective distribution channel. This spurred thousands of fashion-related D2C brands to emerge. Brands that barely had websites or presence outside of the platform that they spurred out of. What will the format-native brands that emerge from Roblox look like? If Instagram was for fashion, my bet is Roblox will shape entertainment. 

  • Formation of culture: When a lot of people hang out together in one place, it becomes a melting pot that shapes culture. Roblox will inevitably do the same. I'm just not sure how yet.

Much like Australia continues, its constant micro-movements, the behavior and preferences of consumers are in flux. It happens slowly. The wake-up moment for a brand is when it wakes up and realizes it's been left behind.

With Roblox and its peers, it's easy to ignore because such a big share of its users is so young they don't spend their own cash. However, understanding how growing up engaging with this new layer of social network is key for brands to effectively engage and build connections with these consumers in the future. This is exactly why now is the time to pay attention, and not when everything has moved so much you have to do a full reset of your GPS coordinates.