The digital flip
Why digital-first connections are just what our physical lives needed
People correctly assume that in the near future we will meet most of the people we know, work with, and love online. They also correctly assume that there is nothing better than shared time and physical space for cultivating the strong connections that change our lives and give them meaning. But people often extrapolate those things to an understandable but incorrect conclusion, which is that the rise of digital tools will lead to us having fewer and less meaningful connections than before.
You might call this final take “digital doomerism” — and it applies to a wide swath of arguments. But the question that comes up for me regarding this critique of future social connections is this: were we really satisfied with the quality of our networks before the digital age? Is a world where important adult connections are mostly built in college, the office, or our neighborhood really the ideal? Or can we aim a whole lot higher?
I am not a digital maximalist. As I wrote in “Shill and Be Shilled,” digital networks have mostly pushed us towards inauthenticity and away from actually connecting with each other. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, through a series of new tools and experiences, digital-first connections might be just what our physical lives have been missing. And whether or not you agree, what’s clear is that the stigma of digital-first connections is disappearing, and fast. Dating apps are already the primary way people meet their partner, 30% of Americans now work remotely and will meet their coworkers online, and a recent Pew survey shows that over half of teens report making a friend online.
The reason I’m optimistic about digital-first is because most of the social tools we have today were built before what I’m calling the digital flip — the moment we are in now, where the gravity of our lives pulls from digital to physical, rather than the other way around. Products built after the digital-flip won’t carry the baggage of a physical-first world, and that’s why they might finally make our networks dramatically better. We needed “mobile-first” design to get apps that weren’t just scaled down versions of their desktop counterparts, and we need “digital-first” tools to realize the potential of the digital world to radically improve our networks.
Death to sharpie name tags
I’m optimistic about connections in the digital-first world because the current bar is not particularly high. Even the words “grow your network” likely send a shiver down your spine. That same shiver sometimes makes me wonder how on earth I’ve spent the last 5 years of my life building professional networks, when I hate networking?
Like most people, I would love to be better networked — most of the truly great things in my life have come via my network. But I dislike the traditional work of “networking,” because I’m shy when I meet people, and allergic to the fluff and self-promotion that is often required to do it well. I’m passionate about future professional networks because I see them as the death of “networking” as we know it.
It’s not just in our professional networks that we should aim higher. The sad truth we all know is that most people start to experience overall network decay a few years after they leave school. It’s hard to meet new people, kids take a lot of time, people move to different cities, and if you’re lucky you end up with a few close friends you still see regularly. There are of course outliers — adults or even elderly people with thriving and growing networks — but those are typically the extreme extroverts (the ones who also love networking events).
Building a better future for our networks matters because we need to be well connected now more than ever. People are increasingly working for themselves and knowledge workers are moving jobs more frequently, both of which require leveraging your network to find new opportunities. And at the same time, some of the existing sources of our network are drying up. Fewer people find local community through their religion, and remote work means offices are no longer gathering spaces for people to meet.
So yes, digitization so far has been increasing the need to be networked and removing some of the ways we’ve built our networks in the past. That is the story the digital doomers are happy to tell. But they fail to mention that the ways we’ve built our networks in the past mostly sucked, and digital tools are better at the parts of connecting that have always been the hardest. On top of that, existing ways of networking have sucked especially for marginalized groups — it’s not just about making the process more efficient, but more human.
Digital products before the digital flip
The problem with the products we’ve seen so far is that they still assume that most of our networks are built physical-first. For example, in order to meet new people on Facebook you had to upload all of the people you met in school. In order to be successful on Hinge (at least back when I was using it) you had to have mutual connections, and those mutual connections come primarily from your college friends, office mates, and so on. In order to be successful on LinkedIn you had to import your connections, and the original source of those connections was the work you did in an office.
Not only that, but most of those digital networks are horrible at doing more than just matching people. If you’ve ever used Hinge or some other dating app, you’ll know that most people try to get as quickly out of the chat and onto a date as they can. The dating app is basically trying to create connections like you would make at a bar or speed-dating event, where you basically don’t know each other at all when you meet for the first time in person. The connections are digital-first, but they are still built with the assumption that the ways we’ve always connected in the physical world will stay the same.
So the question I’ve been asking is — how might it work when our networks are truly digital-first?
Are you that guy from Twitter?
In order to imagine where the future is headed, let’s first lay out the three main steps of connection building to examine how the physical and digital worlds fare at each:
Discovery: you find someone you want to meet, or that person finds you
Connection: some initial contact is established
Connection strengthening: further interactions strengthen the relationship
In the physical world, discovery is the hardest part. Think about your high school or neighborhood — how many people truly vibe with the same things as you? When you walk into a networking event or conference, think about how hard it is to know who within that event is the most relevant to you. Once that discovery happens, physical networks are pretty good.
Digital networks are essentially the reverse — they excel at discovery. TikTok is the extreme example of this, where you can open up the app with zero information and within a few days it will have connected you with a few influencers you’ve never met and never thought you’d care about. Digital tools are ok at connections, and struggle with helping people build deep bonds.
Basically, digital-first networking and physical-first networking are mirrors of each other. If they were funnels, digital-first would be great at the top of the funnel, and bad at the rest, and physical-first would be the reverse. And since we’ve been optimizing physical-first connections for thousands of years, we can assume things aren’t going to change. So for digital-first networking to dramatically improve our lives, it has to get a lot better at facilitating connection and connection-strengthening.
Picturing how this might work is one area where crypto is useful, since it essentially grew up post-Covid and doesn’t have a lot of baggage from the physical world. If you go to ETH Denver or some other conference, you’ll see what I might call the “are you that guy from Twitter” phenomenon — people side-eyeing each other from across a room, walking up and pulling out their phones, and then exploding into a big smile and hug. “OMG you’re the person I’ve been vibing with for the past? You look nothing like your avatar!”
There are still a lot of problems with that example though. Although discovery is easy online, the platforms we’ve seen so far generally try to keep us from connecting with each other to the point where we’d want to meet up. And even then it’s hard to get to the same room as that person, and hard to find them once you’re there.
The tipping point
I’ve spent 5 years and far too many hours thinking about how to help people find each other online, and build true connections and collaborations. And I still don’t have anything close to all the answers for how to do digital-first connections well. But I’ll leave you with a few major areas I’m thinking about and are worth exploring.
Are group chats the next major paradigm in network building?
This feels like one of those obvious ideas because in some ways it has already happened — if the last decade was dominated by feeds, the best contender for the next is group chats. Perhaps what has made that conclusion difficult to swallow is that we all pretty much hate the amount of Discords and Telegrams and other group chats we have to keep up with.
But a few people seem to be living in the future. Tech writer Ben Thompson puts it pretty plainly: “I feel like my online social life has become even richer and more satisfying, even as my Twitter usage has dwindled to nearly nothing; I have multiple active group chats (mostly on WhatsApp, which excels at group messaging relative to its rivals), and have been blessed to see those group chats manifest in real world friendships, not just the other way around.”
Perhaps, as John Gruber argues in his recent piece on Wavelength, what we’ve been missing is products that treat group chats as the thing, rather than evolving into it from live streaming (Discord) or individual messaging (Telegram, WhatsApp, etc).
Graphs want to be free
As a product builder, connections are like money — you often have to have access to them to help people make more of them. That’s why LinkedIn has thumbed its nose at all of our complaints for the past years, knowing we’ll never leave. Especially as AI tools bring the cost of building products to zero, the limiting reagent to creating interesting products that help us forge connections will be the availability of structured data about our existing connections. The most valuable data we’ve co-created over the past decades is social and professional graphs.
Thanks in part to Elon stirring the pot, there’s finally consumer demand for open graphs. That, coupled with the rise in developer demand for open data, feels like the tipping point. Millions of people are migrating to Mastodon, Bluesky, Farcaster, or Lens. We believe that the same will happen to professional networks, which is why we’re building Backdrop.
Tools for the digital -> physical moment
People you know online are all around you, and you have no idea. I recently traveled to Austin and tweeted that I was going, and lots of people I know online reached out to get coffee. It was such a good experience, but the general methods of transitioning digital relationships to physical ones are lacking. Even just having more granular data on people’s physical locations (if privacy concerns could be addressed) would be a gamechanger for builders who want to create products that bring people together. I love the recent experiment Farcaster rolled out where if you change your location, other people in that location get notified. This is another area where crypto will sneak up on some people — the “scan your monkey NFT at the conference” stuff might seem odd to outsiders, but that tech stack is building in the right digital-first direction.
As you can probably tell, I spend too much of my time thinking about how to create real, authentic connections in digital space, ones that connect us to our passions and make us happy, innovative, and fulfilled. If something in here resonated with you, or if you’d like to jam on any of this — especially how open graphs will enable developers to build amazing things — please reach out.
Big thanks to Adam Delehanty and Kiana Pirouz for their help with this piece.
If you enjoyed this piece, I publish a handful of articles a year on how networks get work done, and how that make our lives better.