Nov 26, 2019

Small social networks are having a moment

Illustration of a share icon with account avatars as the circles.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Small is the new big when it comes to social networking, with a number of startups and established players seeking to cater to people that want to share photos, messages and other information — but only with a tight-knit group of friends or family.

Driving the news: Monday marked the official launch of Cocoon, an app from two former Facebook employees. It aims to create a new sort of sharing experience for close family and friends.

  • Facebook confirms it has developed a prototype app that allows people to quickly share a photo in individual messages to a number of close friends. (The company says it has yet to decide whether to launch such an app, adding is not testing the prototype internally or externally.) Since last year, Facebook has been signaling an increased focus on features that let close friends stay in touch.
  • Instagram, also owned by Facebook, last month introduced Threads, which it bills as a "camera-first messaging app" for sharing with an intimate circle. Instagram also has a feature for sharing stories only with close friends.

Why it matters: Sharing information within tightly knit groups could lead to a friendlier social experience. (Without proper protections, it could lead to a false sense of security, though.)

While big social networks like Facebook and Twitter allow people to have hundreds of connections or more, researchers say that's not really how human social relationships evolved.

  • The so-called Dunbar number suggests that most people are capable of maintaining only about 150 connections at most.

A number of investors seem open to the idea of more tightly curated sharing, with Lerer Hippeau, Y Combinator, Susa, Norwest, Advancit, Foundation Capital, iNovia, Shrug, and SV Angel all contributing to a $3 million seed round for Cocoon that closed in May.

Yes, but: Others, including Path, have tried this, um, path before — with limited success at best.

What they're saying: In an interview, Cocoon co-founders Sachin Monga and Alex Cornell say they aren't really trying to create a different kind of social network, but rather improve upon the real world ways that families and chosen families stay in touch: weekly phone calls, multiple text message threads and shared photos.

  • The pair have been working on the project since leaving Facebook last year, having tested the app with a few dozen families in recent months.

Details: For now, Cocoon is a free service, and available only for iOS, though an Android app is at the top of the company's to-do list. Also, for now, people can only be in a single group, or Cocoon, but that will change over time as well.

  • Longer term, the pair hope they can create a service people would pay to subscribe to.
  • "Even if we wanted to we couldn’t do an ads business — the model itself would preclude that," said Cornell, Cocoon's chief design officer and a co-founder of UberConference.

Fun fact: You may never have heard of Cornell, but you have probably heard his voice. He sings the infamous, twangy "I'm on hold" song that greets the first participant on an UberConference call.

  • "Unfortunately, no matter what good I ever do in life," he says, he will be known for creating that music.

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