Tinder, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram are just a few of the prominent apps that give users a dopamine high as their content gets traction. But these apps have masked fulfillment of the attention need with other core features, which normalize attention-seeking behavior. Tinder lets you meet cool people. Instagram makes you look cool. And Twitter makes you sound cool. Why doesn’t anonymous attention make you cool?
For more than a decade, ask.fm, Sarahah, curious.cat, and other apps have explored the anonymous attention space with success. Anonymous attention apps are those in which users receive nameless feedback, meaning that senders can hide their identity. Though initially very popular, none of these apps have stuck around. Cyber-bullying has been a consistent concern, but the problems with these apps are not limited to harassment. So what exactly isn’t working out?
Attention is a universal need, one famously satisfied by most social media apps. However, attention apps have been unable to negate the major downsides of getting involved in this space, like the ignominy associated with attention-seeking. Further, the app user experience is widely dependent on other social media apps, and the features are not designed for trust.
Almost all attention apps have gone through periods of quick growth, followed by a decrease in their user base. Apart from the widely known complication of cyber-bullying, one reason for the decline might be the increasing criticism and societal judgment attached to these apps. When a new attention app launches, users try out the new cool app on their timelines. But as app usage increases, the non-users start voicing value judgments, often negative, which affect user activity. Thus, in some ways, attention apps can cost you social media capital. It is hard for regular users to avoid being judged as attention-seekers. This might be a primary reason why these apps have not achieved long-term stickability.
But why do people judge? Because they are well aware of user activity. They see it on their feeds. Attention apps have depended on other social media platforms for their growth and visibility, which almost negates the whole concept of anonymity. With connected accounts on Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, etc, the users lose the ability to control their exposure, and the ability to separate the two spaces. Dating apps like Tinder, etc have been very successful at decoupling the app experience from the other social medias apps. Tinder users rarely expose their app activity to other social media networks. And the decrease in exposure does not affect their experience on Tinder. The swiping phenomenon has become acceptable, and users are not judged for their inability to find potential partners. Attention apps have not yet achieved this level of normalcy on a large scale, and with their current features, they’re unlikely to do so.
Someone has to make attention apps cool again. These new attention apps will have to change the whole user experience. Current app designs enable the user to receive anonymous comments, after which the user has to publicly ask for the identity of the sender. And if they receive the identity, the user may expose the sender by replying to the comment afterward. The whole interaction is marred by vulnerability and a lack of trust, primarily because of a lack of special features. Both parties are forced to be public for the exchange in an anonymous attention app. Tinder enables users to interact privately through the chat feature. Instagram stories are popular conversation starters. And on Twitter, anyone can reply privately to your tweets. Attention apps need a similar feature.
Teenagers make up the majority user base for most attention apps, a phenomenon which can be linked to the boom and bust cycle of attention apps. Apps must have same-age users and must be ‘cool’ to work for this demographic. Moreover, teenage network effects are more geography dependent. A particular app’s popularity in an area is majorly reliant on its popularity in the area’s high schools. If it becomes unpopular in the high school(s), app usage will undoubtedly be affected. Teenagers can also simply grow out of this demographic. If attention apps target the more lucrative and nuanced college student users, Millennials, and adults markets, they can extend their life-cycle and increase their user base.
This is an interesting graphic from the Stanford research — “How Couples Meet”. The graph shows two interesting trends: the increase in meeting online and the increase in meeting at a bar or a restaurant. But both are opposite. Meeting online mostly validates physical attraction and whereas the offline interaction also includes interpersonal real-life interaction. Although physical attraction is necessary, people still want mental compatibility and attention in the form of meaningful and fulfilling conversations. As most of the couples who met in bars were strangers, it should not be a surprise that people may want to bump into similar circumstances online without matching after swiping. Also, the emphasis of dating apps on physical appearances has led to inequality in the dating economy which goes against the whole concept of dating apps. Attraction is not limited to only physical appearance and the next generation attention apps can explore this idea further.
Attention apps with the current features, bullying concerns, and dependence on other platforms will continue to struggle with their user base. The app makers need to innovate. The next generation of attention apps must offer a seamless conversion to a private chat, be independent of other social media networks, change the user experience, and offer anonymous attention. They may provide mutual interest-based circles for people or limit the circles to geographic regions. New apps must address harassment and bullying concerns that have affected all attention apps. Content moderating algorithms and filters will be required to save users from the dark side of the anonymous internet. Now it is up to the startups to try multiple iterations to find the right product-market fit for this space. If you’re an investor or a young graduate, any startup that finds the right fit for the right users in this space will be an interesting venture to consider.