Earlier this month Jonathan Libov, an Analyst at Union Square Ventures penned a widely circulated piece on the importance of paying attention to “fringe” technology and interests in the corners of the internet. He noted:
“Fringiness, if you will, is in many ways vital to the business of venture capital. Sure, there is a large segment of investments that are wholly mainstream from the start and can be found by some combination of being in the right place at the right time and good execution (e.g., Uber). But there is a large segment that capitalizes on the arbitrage of thought, culture and research. Inasmuch as a venture capitalist has developed ideas and conviction about how the world will develop, hanging around the fringe is an opportunity to participate in big opportunities that are priced well because the majority of other investors haven’t caught on yet.”
I agree with Jonathan. But there’s one problem: the fringe, which used to be accessible to anyone with a mouse and keyboard, has, over the past several years become increasingly opaque and inaccessible. So what changed?
First, some history: My earliest memory of the internet’s fringe was in America Online WaReZ chat rooms a subculture where people swapped files, tried to gain administrative accounts. (It was during this period that I taught myself how to code in Visual Basic simply so that I could write hot-key functions to sit on top of AOL). In those days, conversations within the walls of AOL’s interest groups and chat rooms were undeniably private – neither indexed nor aggregated – and nowadays, probably flushed and lost forever.
But that would quickly change post-AOL, transitioning into a longstanding period of heavy archival. Online communities and interest groups enjoyed a largely public discourse for much of the past 15 years. Usenet newsgroups (and all the amazing content of the alt. and rec. topics) were initially indexed by DejaNews and later made fully searchable by Google. As Usenet was fading, massively searchable online forums powered by UBB.threads and later by the vBulletin platform were wholly indexed by Google and remain archived and accessible to this day.
And the trend continued with Reddit’s rise to popularity. As the world of micro communities and interest groups began to transition away from individual web forums and centralize within Reddit’s walls, they adhered to the ethos of content accessibility. Although their pages have historically ranked poorly on Google, they do, in fact, rank, fully meta-searchable and transparent.
But Reddit’s advantage – massive amounts of centralized content and interests – was also its curse, yielding an often aesthetically messy, abuse ridden experience. Alex Shye, an entrepreneur in the Bay Area, likened Reddit’s architecture and experience to Craigslist – which had been successfully unbundled into vertical specific marketplaces such as Uber, Airbnb, Thumbtack and others – and predicted that Reddit would be similarly unbundled into vertical specific content platforms and communities.
He was right. Sort of. Reddit is being unbundled. But not by vertical specific sites. That honor has been assumed by massively horizontal platforms: Slack and Facebook.
Slack, the $3.7 Billion communication platform has expanded from its root as a team based communication tool and now boasts tens of thousands (at least – the number is not publicized) of individual teams/communities. Many of these communities have thriving discussions, but are not fully public – often demanding an application process for entry – nor are they explicitly archived or searchable. How many of the more than 3M Daily Active Users are in interest-based communities is anyone’s guess. But anecdotally, it’s high.
Concurrently, Facebook Groups have been consistently growing in absolute number and engagement for years, now boasting over 1 billion Monthly Active Users. Teddy Citrin at Greycroft Partners recently noted that the launch of Groups’ Discover Flow has for the first time offered transparency into the scope and depth of Groups’ unique memberships. But even so, these Groups are also membership gated and their content remains unindexed by Google and downright unsearchable – unless one is a member.
And there may be one additional macro-trend at play: as messengers, led by WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Line, and Kik continue to incentivize native brand engagement and content/product conversation, that may yield large volumes of incremental content, reviews, comments, and awareness that leave the broader searchable ecosystem.
Admittedly, there has always been discourse existing beyond the internet’s open walls, whether it was cased in e-mail or IRC channels. But excepting e-mail, the conversations have still generally occurred in open mainstream channels. But recently, I have watched my own dependency on Slack and FB Groups increase materially to maintain relevancy of certain interests. [I have also watched more private conversations get revealed on Pastebin – but that is a separate discussion.]
The fringe exists as the “fringe” for a reason – it is by intention intended to sidestep mainstream conversation. But nevertheless, from my vantage point, it’s becoming increasingly opaque. If you are also thinking about this shift in community and information, feel free to shoot me a note, would love to chat.