Centuries ago, humanity endured a pandemic which makes today’s current events pale in comparison. The bubonic plague wiped out half of Europe’s population highlighted the inequities of the time—those who had the means fled population centers for the countryside. In contrast, everyone else had to stay put (sound familiar)? It also created a massive depression due to the population loss and lives in our history books as a great time of suffering, death, and hardship. However, once the plague passed—new power structures were created, shifting from the church's traditions to the enlightenment of humanity. They created new economic supply and demand as population centers replenished themselves as well as fueling explosions in the evolution of art and science.
Today, we’re seeing some similar dynamics, albeit happening over days and months vs. decades. We’ve already witnessed the exponential rise of platforms like Zoom and TikTok. Tectonic shifts continue accelerating such as consumers flocking to digital entertainment or in-home fitness to app-enabled grocery delivery. These accelerated behaviors are not likely to reverse themselves—the genie is out of the bottle.
A new, digital renaissance is brewing…
Not since our last financial crisis in 2008 can I remember a similar time where so much social-enabled technology was exploding, creating new economies and birthing society-changing entities such as Twitter and Facebook. The social Web was the second coming of search engines—instead of browser-based discovery and targeted search. It introduced serendipity, the social graph as a way to explore, and newsfeeds to consume contact and interact with friends and companies alike. Many social startups emerged—some were consolidated, and others came and went. The energy feels eerily similar now as the pandemic has re-defined our relationship with technology—how we find comfort, connection, and in many cases, reinvention. On the heels of Zoom and remote work, which has literally transformed how we communicate and collaborate, three forces, in particular, have been accelerating to help fuel this “digital renaissance”...
Social Audio: A Countertrend Born of “Zoom Fatigue”
Don’t call it a podcast—in many ways, social audio, i.e., Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, represent a countertrend not unlike what we’ve seen with Instagram, where it is no longer fashionable to curate images that look perfectly glossy and unrealistic. But unlike the changes in the “Instagram aesthetic,” Social Audio presents a more game-changing opportunity in that it taps the opportunity created by “Zoom fatigue” and being on video all day and combines the freedoms of audio with a LIVE audience and, most importantly, the social aspect of it all. It’s part talk radio, part early days Twitter, and part conference panel that’s 24/7, live, and at often it’s unfiltered. In particular, I’ve speculated that Clubhouse can make money by building off the tried and tested “conference model” much like today’s social behemoths built off the traditional advertising models as their primary revenue source.
Social Audio is already attracting big-name celebrities, politicians, and millions of lesser-known individuals who may or may not be experts in their fields. Skeptics believe that social audio is a fad and will go the way of live streaming, but what they underestimate is the flywheel of connection that social audience offers—it’s not just content creation and consumption but the connection that can actually complement real-world interactions when the world opens up again—one day. You’ll be able to go to that conference again, be introduced to a wildly smart panelist or speaker—and then you’ll want to follow them on the social audio platform they are active on as a way to stay close to their thinking and a likeminded community you can network with.
Tokens: An Emerging Value/Currency Paradigm
Tokens aren’t entirely new—possibly the most visible player, NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), has actually been around for a few years. Built on the Blockchain, NFTs differ from their crypto-currency relatives in that unlike currency such as Bitcoin; the value is not linked to the currency itself rather the asset. Not unlike how artists led much of the Renaissance shifts, some artists are tapping the potential of NFTs to create scarcity for their art, often creating it using digital-first methods and empowering the artist to let the market set the value. While it’s still early days, auction powerhouse Christie’s recently teamed up with artist Beeple, using NFTs as the way the art is “minted,” thus creating scarcity and ensuring authenticity. The purchasing of the minted/NFT’d artwork can then be auctioned off to the highest bidder, and in this case, cryptocurrency Ether or standard forms of payment are accepted.
Another variation of emerging tokens is creator coins, which can accelerate the transformation of the “creator economy” as we know it. Creator coins essentially allow those who are creators of content or community, create a currency (often in their own image or in the service of the community they are engaged in), providing both themselves and their community a direct way to exchange currency related to either to the value the creator is providing or even through peer to peer exchanges. Rally.io is the marketplace where the early days of the creator coin marketplace are being developed, attracting some early adopters associated with properties such as live streaming videogame platform Twitch.
Subscriptions: A Direct To Audience Value Proposition
Maybe you have subscribed to my “newsletter” on Substack, and you’re reading this in your inbox… This model isn’t new, but the ability to monetize subscriptions is still somewhat in the early days. The news industry is probably following this most closely, as some high-profile journalists have migrated how they make money off their content through Substack (see Casey Newton). However, other subscription-based models are accelerating even more rapidly, fueled by a pandemic with more people glued to their screens and others looking for ways to support themselves. Recently, a mom of three children found herself in hot water with the school her children attended because of photos linked to her OnlyFans account, which allows her to have direct interactions and transactions with patrons who subscribe and pay for her content. What’s even more astonishing, though, is that she has been making an average of one fifty thousand dollars a month through the direct to an audience subscription model—another parallel to the patron model of the original renaissance and perhaps even more lucrative.
As we approach post-pandemic life, we’ll be living with many new dynamics that have emerged in the past year (and counting), and we’re at the early stages of seeing the digital renaissance shift power structures, create new currencies as well as new models of creating and consuming content while exchanging value. Social audio, tokens, and subscriptions are three key pillars accelerating today’s renaissance.