Social Network Drift

Maybe the reason why social networks fade away over time is as simple as different generations wanting different experiences. Picnic, an emerging social network, exemplifies this point.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: One thing I’ve noticed with the recent social media diasporas that have emerged in the wake of Twitter’s decline is that the people who make up those diasporas don’t really seem to be pulling in new groups of people so much as giving the types of people that are already addicted to Twitter a new place to go. We are not bringing in new members of the club, for the most part—we are instead doing the social media equivalent of a ’90s revival night at the local hipster dance club. New generations are likely hanging out in other communities, or at least trying to carve out a corner of the internet that hasn’t been taken over by lame people. In a world where social networks abound, what leads people to try to find new places to hide out, instead of sticking with the current one? In today’s Tedium, I talk to the founders of Picnic, an emerging social network, about budding communities and the need for generational “white space.” — Ernie @ Tedium

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Picnic Social Network

The desktop interface of Picnic, an emerging social network.

One of the fastest-growing new social networks found its momentum from teen girls

The social network Picnic, which is akin to a TikTok-meets-Reddit vibe, sports numerous circles dedicated to topics like memes, music, school, and anime. (The anime communities, with hundreds of thousands of members each, are particularly popular.)

Videos dominate the network, though there are some image and text posts. And while the web version of Picnic gives off vibes very similar to Google+ or Tumblr, of all things, the phone version definitely carries itself with a style closer to TikTok or Snapchat—with swipe-heavy engagement dynamics and even some light game elements.

The thing that stands out about it at this point, honestly, is the audience. The app has more than 3 million downloads and more than 100,000 new posts each week, and the most popular communities at this juncture are based around Gacha, Roblox, and anime. The audience is reportedly 90 percent Gen Z, which means that I feel my elder millennial status more acutely when using this service.

This is a network where teenagers, particularly teenage girls, hang out. They are talking about life, school, memes, and the things that interest them. There is a “news” circle, but not much chatter about the debt ceiling battle happening there—rather, it’s news about their lives and their experiences. Maybe at some point, this network will have more of a focus on the drama of the news cycle that’s usually found on other social networks, but today is not that day.

The real focus here is community, and the way that new friendships often build from shared interests. Nico Laqua, the CEO of the network who attended Columbia University on a STEM scholarship, says that he found solace in communities like this as a kid himself, when he found an early interest in programming.

“With Picnic, the motivation is that online communities are something that are very near and dear to my heart,” he said in an interview. “I spent my whole childhood on internet forums of various groups, mostly programming and stuff like that. But I think it’s the most beautiful expression on the internet to be able to discuss like shared topics with people that you might not know in real life.”

The 23-year-old Laqua and his business partner, 21-year-old COO Emily Yuan, built the network as something of a proof of concept, only to find that it grew faster than they were expecting, and they had to immediately scale the infrastructure.

“We were expecting a couple hundred, maybe a thousand people to test it out and people loved it,” Yuan, who left Stanford to help launch Picnic, says. “People, especially young people, really wanted a space online to hang out.”

An early factor that shaped the network was Yuan sharing the app with her younger sister, whose interest in the platform helped it spread like wildfire—and, ultimately, shaped its current audience base.

“She’s in middle school, and she and her friends all made communities, and those communities actually ended up being the biggest ones on the platform today,” Yuan says.

This decision to focus on a younger demographic has likely given the network a level of stickiness with its audience that other new social networks may find harder to match.

Other social networks do things similar to Picnic—from the Discord-style focus on communities to the looping videos of its mobile apps—but in many ways, the power of the network is in its ability to bring new groups of people together in a bottom-up fashion. Gradually, the communities that seem to show the most staying power are the ones developed by community members themselves, such as Gacha, an anime-style visual avatar format that has proven a popular way for Picnic members to express themselves.

“We see a lot of really interesting communities surrounding a lot of different topics,” Yuan says. “And each of these communities, they have their own personality.”

While the duo has funding, they are still doing things in a barebones format—Laqua speaks of splitting 12-hour sleeping shifts with Yuan to keep the network online and track any issues with the service, including content moderation, which is especially a concern given the current target audience. They are well in the midst of startup life—but their joint project has a lot of potential.

“We flew to meet our first investor because we couldn’t pay our hosting bill. We had 100,000 people join or something like that while we were on the flight over.”

— Laqua, discussing the unusual circumstances that colored Picnic’s early growth—that is, a network growing so quickly that they needed to do emergency repairs to the service while on the plane—because, after all, they were meeting with an investor when they landed. “The whole app was down, and that would have been embarrassing otherwise,” he said. They got the investment round—and the incident taught them the importance of hardening their technology, which is now capable of handling hundreds of millions of potential users, per Laqua.

Social Networking Apps

(Rob Hampson/Unsplash)

Generational white space: Why do newer generations want separate spaces?

You’ve most assuredly heard the line about Facebook—maybe it started out as something seeded to a bunch of college students, but eventually it became the domain of their parents and grandparents, and younger users moved to other parts of the open internet.

We eventually shifted gears and found other social networks. And often, our decision-making was based less on the technology and more about what drew communities. And every generation seems to want a new home of their own.

“I think if you look at like the history of the internet, what we tend to see is, there’s like 7-to-10-year cycles,” he says. “And every seven to ten years, a new crop of interesting companies come out, change the way that socialization works, in some way, shape or form.”

The last round of social networks gave us TikTok and Discord; before that, we got Tumblr, Snapchat, and Instagram; and before that, we got YouTube, Facebook and LinkedIn. These networks all found themselves flooded by news outlets and professional influencers over time, but they didn’t start that way.

But if you look at the history of social media, there are only just a handful of major success stories. More common are the failures. For every Instagram, there are a dozen Pheeds. The result is that, when a new generation of social networks appear, new users often do a lot of searching for new networks but struggle to find something interesting with which they can build a community around.

“There’s been a lot of flash-in-the-pans, things that have popped up but faded very quickly, like BeReal or Poparazzi, that I think are evidence that young people are looking for a new platform,” Laqua says, adding that these new networks have tended to focus on gimmicky features, making them more transient in nature. “I think that building these tools for people to socialize, especially young people, is extremely important. Because no matter what, young people will be engaging ideas to each other and will be engaging in socialization.”

So why do networks like BeReal or Gas often dominate the buzz cycles? To hear it from Laqua, it comes down to the target audience for these services—which isn’t the users, but investors looking for a quick buck.

“There’s an obsessive focus on growth loops, because the metrics that investors care about are primarily growth and short-term-retention related—retention over, say, a month or two months or something like that,” he says. “But look at the cohorts—if you’re optimizing for investors, that means that oftentimes going with gimmicks works really well for raising money from investors.”

With this in mind, Picnic appears to be positioning itself as a potential long-haul network for drawing in new kinds of users, rather than momentary social buzz. It wants to be like Reddit, not BeReal, and there is some deeper theory underpinning its approach.

There’s actually been somewhat of an interest in longer-lasting networks outside of the Gen Z target audience, especially in the form of networks like Mastodon or Bluesky, which are designed to work based on the concept of federation, or that the network will be designed around multiple distinct servers.

While Picnic is an open-source app with its code released under the AGPL (it’s built with Flutter, if you’re curious), it does not emphasize a federated nature in its structure, instead favoring centralized servers. To Laqua, what matters more than server distribution is the idea that the community starts from a place of clear intentions.

“I think that like when thinking about decentralization is something that I think is important that there’s transparency, or I think transparency comes more from, from open source, and from, you know, providing valid experiences to users, as opposed to having theoretical decentralization,” he says. “I don’t really see that much of a necessity or need to allow people to allow people to run their own instances or whatever social network you’re running.”


Everyone gets a piece of this watermelon. (Tanalee Youngblood/Unsplash)

Picnic hopes to seed its community through revenue sharing—and build self-governing communities in the process

Beyond an open and transparent approach, one way that Picnic hopes to differentiate itself and emphasize its positive intentions is by focusing on an approach that most community-driven networks of its nature have failed to offer: Revenue sharing.

The one social network that has largely maintained a consistent presence in users’ lives since the beginning is YouTube, in large part because it generates a consistent revenue stream.

“What YouTube has shown is that you give the people that are providing the value, any social platform, an economic incentive to, to produce long term value, they’ll do so,” Laqua says.

Community-style platforms have largely not benefited from this kind of approach, except indirectly—say, by offering a Patreon where one of the benefits is access to a Discord server. Over time, this has led to awkward situations—most notably when the creator of the popular Reddit forum WallStreetBets was removed as a moderator because he had attempted to trademark and monetize the community he built.

Despite users ultimately creating much of the value on many platforms, they are often cut out of the profits and growth they generate for these networks, which makes them more likely to depart for greener pastures. So by putting a degree of financial incentive in the hands of moderators by offering them fractional ownership of the community they built through a system of “seeds,” they ultimately are able to control their community’s destiny. If WallStreetBets launched on Picnic, it would have never run into the drama it faced on Reddit.

Laqua says that this borrows from some of the more decentralized thinking of the fediverse or Bluesky, while still making it accessible to a larger class of end users, who can do things like add AI-enabled apps, called pods, to their communities.

“We really want to support all sorts of functionalities, including selling stakes in circles and allowing people to really just run their communities however they want to in a kind of almost decentralized manner,” he says. “And I think that like that contrast as an approach with something like Bluesky, most of the attempts towards decentralization is more of a theoretical benefit than a practical one.”

Giving a degree of financial control to those that operate circles on Picnic could also take some of the moderation burden off the network itself, as the community would be incentivized to self-moderate the communities they’ve built, with distinct rules that allow for a curated experience, along the lines of what you might see in a Reddit community or Facebook group—except with the possibility of making money from it, if it’s operated effectively.

“We want to create a safe space for people to post; we don’t want any illegal content, we don’t want anything too terrible,” Yuan says. “But in the end, we want the communities to be able to determine what is okay.”

Maybe the social networks we already have are really well-suited for the olds. And maybe the olds are always a little younger than we might expect.

When I look at Picnic, I’m reminded of some of the earliest networks I took a part in when I grew up—Yahoo! Chat, and its ability to connect random people, comes to mind, as does LiveJournal, and its tendency to spark creativity. It also feels a little like some of the early forums I experienced, even if I was well out of the teen demographic when I found them.

Think about this topic like popular music or fashion—there’s a reason why new styles emerge over time as new generations come up. Are we built to reject what came before us? Perhaps.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that once these networks do find their niche, they expand out in a huge way. TikTok started with teenagers—now it’s used by their parents, too. And Laqua and Yuan, despite building a network with a very tight niche, do see it someday breaking out of its teen-focused realm—if they put in the hard work and make the right decisions.

“What we hope to do is have everyone on the planet with internet access engage with self-governing communities and engage with topics of interest,” Laqua says. “What YouTube did to videos, we want to do the same thing to community groups.”

Yuan adds: “We want to make the internet like a more fun and interesting place where people can engage with the stuff that they like.”

Hey, if they do it right, there could be enough generational white space for everyone to be happy.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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