What are we really seeking when we give new platforms like Threads a go?

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What are we really seeking when we give new platforms like Threads a go?

Building a new social network is like trying to lure migrants to a young country


There you are, minding your own business, doing your thing, when —all of a sudden— all of your friends start talking about a new far off land, brimming with opportunity, and the promise of prosperity.

In this new land, your friends say, anyone can become a noble —or even a royal.

You look around at your modest life, as everyone around you gets ready to set sail.

OK, why not? You decide to give it a go.


According to Alex Zhu, the founder of musical.ly (a now defunct lip synching app), in order to grow, social media platforms need to offer users the same choice.

Zhu's theory is that —like young nations seeking talented migrants in order to grow their economies— new social media platforms can only lure users by promising them an elevated social standing.

Stick with me as I unwrap this wild concept —and explore what it means for the future of social media, the Internet, and even ourselves.


Zhu’s theory recognizes a universal human yearning: it’s not so much the chance to be a part of something new, vibrant, and growing (though that is a big thing.)

Rather, the far more powerful human motivator is the desire for status and recognition.

To Zhu, the way for social media platforms to grow is to persuade people that they can become "big fish" in the still-small pond of a new platform, which is better than staying a small fish in the vast, crowded sea of more established social networks.

Zhu’s promise of a faster climb up the social ladder worked wonders for musical.ly. He leveraged the human propensity for status-seeking into a US$1b exit to ByteDance, which essentially transformed his lip synching app into what is now TikTok.

But was that a one off, or is this theory actually any good?


As Haris Aghadi puts it on LinkedIn, “Alex Zhu's thinking is almost unparalleled to anything I have seen lately. How his [mind finds] analogies [for] product development [in] economics, government and social status [is] so insightful.”

As Haris paraphrases it:

  1. [Zhu] paints a great example of how starting a product community is similar to starting a new land and seeding the economy and how you want people to migrate from other countries to your country. Let’s use America as an analogy for Musically. Instagram/Facebook is Europe. You want people from Europe to move to America. How do you convince them?

  2. The average citizen of Europe has zero to no opportunity to move upward in the social class. They leveraged this by building it for the average citizens in America - allowing them to upgrade their social status when they move here.

  3. In the early days, you have to build a centralized economy - you want wealth to be distributed to a small percentage of people so they can prosper and become the role models to attract more people. You want people in Europe to look at a normal person in America who was just like them who became rich after moving there. So they’d want to migrate to America too.

  4. You want the early users of your product to get a lot of value out of your product fairly quickly. This will help other content creators to be inspired and migrate to your product - a great low CAC distribution strategy.

  5. However, you have to decentralize the economy at the same time. There needs to be a middle class - an average person should have an opportunity to become successful. Give all types of users the satisfaction to create and consume content.

  6. Most people join social media platforms to gain fame. However, once they reach fame it’s not enough. Revenue is what leads to retention. If they are making money they will stick around. YouTube is a great example of that.

The “new land” analogy is imperfect, but the theory is interesting, and adds a compelling layer to our understanding of social media dynamics, in my opinion.


Let’s call it Social Standing Theory. It explains why users often migrate to new platforms en masse, despite the obvious comforts of the familiar. It also provides a handy playbook for emerging platforms seeking to attract users from established networks.

But, most intriguingly, Social Standing Theory acknowledges the inherent human element behind the choices users make online.

It recognizes —plainly— that behind every username and profile picture, there’s a person driven by some pretty fundamental human needs and desires, including the pursuit of clout.


In our view, Social Standing Theory suggests that we should all prepare for a constantly-evolving landscape of newer and newer social media platforms, each one promising users the allure of status and recognition that evades them in the present.

Yep, the future of socials is an endless cycle of emerging platforms enticing users away from their current “homes” online, with the promise of a “better” social media “life,” and the only ones that will be successful will be those that can create real —and lasting— opportunities for users to enhance their social standing. (Clubhouse looked like it could do this for a moment during the pandemic, but then not at all. And it’s not clear that BeReal ever really offered this.)


Content creator Chris Giuseppini believes Meta’s new Twitter clone is poised to close the gap between content creator and their audience for a simple reason: Threads’ content is text based to begin with.

As Chris puts it, when the original content is ”text, and the responding comment is also text, there is a closing of the metaphorical class difference between creator and audience.”

It’s a clever take, and Chris believes that this simple, structural advantage will actually inspire better and deeper engagement —as well as a more level playing field— as Threads commenters realize the higher status they have on the new platform, as compared to other, visual-first platforms.

This tracks with Social Standing Theory: social platforms of the future will not only need to provide innovative ways for users to express their identities, demonstrate their talents, and connect with others— but they’ll have to also, somehow, convince you that you can be a star.

Since both content and comments are text first on Threads, prolific commenters actually can become stars.


Zoom out: Social Standing Theory could actually shape the future of the Internet itself:

Imagine a digital universe filled with constantly evolving platforms that entice individuals hop from one to the other in pursuit of brighter status.

Then, as our IRL lives become increasingly intertwined with our digital ones, it’s not hard to imagine our collective pursuit of social status starting to drive not only our online behavior but also our offline decisions.

This is actually already happening and is exactly why Harry Styles keeps getting hit in the eye with stuff while on stage. Online mores are bleeding offline, as people seek to create viral moments for clout.


Social Standing Theory gives us a really fascinating lens through which to judge new platforms. (It's also a reminder that our human needs and desires remain at the core of our digital behaviors.)

The next time you hear of an emerging social platform? Grab that good username and give it a shot: early adopters could zoom to the front of the line for that status-boost that Zhu's theory suggests. And it’s not just a nice to have, social media fame usually means money, whether that’s in the form of brand partnerships, ad revenue splits, or even “just” enhanced career opportunities.

Bottom line: No matter what the future brings, the “status” mind trick is here to stay. The people currently building tomorrow’s social media platforms know all about it.

Now you do too.


14 Product Lessons from the founder of Musically (TikTok) »»

“#Threads is going to close the gap between content creator & their audience. Here’s how…” »»

Written by Jon Kallus. Any feedback? Simply reply. Like this? Share it!

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