Study after study finds that (anti)social networks such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat are leading to greater levels of depression and anxiety in university campuses around the world. Platforms once thought to be used to stay in touch with old friends and colleagues have now become a source of envy and dissatisfaction as an army of zombie scrollers see yet another picture of some instamodel’s vaca from her vaca, a college room mates new baby, or their high school class’s class idiot now wearing yet another new Zegna suit as he drives his Ferrari to his high powered [banking/startup/consulting] job. “It all just came so easily for them” many imagine, as they ponder why their life didn’t turn out as well despite having just spent 3 hours stalking through all their pictures while simultaneously producing absolutely nothing and no more educated then when they started.
The fact is, social networks have changed a long long time ago from being a product designed to connect people to each other, to now being a product designed to capture as much time as possible from it's user for the end benefit of it's shareholders at any cost (and I do mean any). But just like with any other addictive, people have begun to take notice of just how damaging social networks are to their growth, productivity and happiness and the negative habits they have formed over the years because of them.
There is still hope however, and it is in the cure that we are now finding opportunities to finally use these social network to push people to strive and work for a better life. You see, the best way to wean yourself off of any addiction, be it smoking, drinking or hentai, is said to be to find another healthier habit to gradually replace it with. And it is in this that a revolution is brewing, the Rise of the Micro-Network.
Micro-networks are small networks often built on existing communication platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, a Subreddit, a forum or even Facebook groups to serve a single particular purpose. These networks can often have complimenting web platforms or host social events, though neither is a requirement, and can quickly and cheaply be spun up as the need for the particular niche they serve grows, or existing networks begin to grow too large or change course in a way that's no longer productive for the subset of members.
Most interestingly, you are probably already part of such a network and just haven't realised it. Examples can include things as simple as a WhatsApp group used by guests at a wedding, or between a group of friends to share jokes, images and plan daily activities. Other more formal micro-networks however include those based around topics such as health, travelling cheaply, digital-nomadism, bootstrapping a start-up, getting more Instagram followers, mountain biking in Amsterdam, or anything else.
Some of the networks I myself am a member of include WIP.chat and Nomadlist, but there are plenty of others based on what you're interested in, such as some specifically made to fight social media or gaming addiction.
Viva La Revolución
Using the elements of human behaviour and psychology prayed on by social networks, such as the Cue-Routine-Reward loop to form habits (why do you think 'Like' buttons exist and include instant notifications?) , the want of community and the need of peer validation, micr0-networks have formed to instead encourage their users to form healthier and more productive habits. While these networks are all unique and exist for different purposes, they all share a few core similarities that help them be successful in their drive to improve their users happiness and growth.
While having been able to amass 2 billion users is a remarkable accomplishment by any standard and one that has definitely never been accomplished before, because of the massive scale of these social networks they begin to lose their intimacy. Having a feed of updates from your 500+ friends, ex-girlfriends/ex-boyfriends, distant cousins, and "that [guy/girl] you met that one time at that one place"s, can be overwhelming. It no longer becomes a place where you can have small personal discussions with close friends and family who's opinions you actually care about, but instead turns into a feed of political ideas you disagree with, news items you think might be fake, vacation pictures and those few people with superiority complexes who like to lecture on why everything you post is politically incorrect or just outright wrong, and expect you to get into a debate with them about it.
Micro-networks instead consist of smaller groups, sometimes as small as less than 10 people, and often with only a few dozen regular active members. Members will often get to know each other on a more personal level and be far more up to date on their lives, struggles, happiness's and opinions. While members won't always agree with one another, they will often have developed a mutual respect of one another's opinion or at the very least know who to avoid debating with. This in turn (along with strict community guidelines in larger micro-networks) creates a healthier atmosphere on constructive and enlightened discussions and a mutual respect of opinions.
Sharing in Success and Failure
It's easy to feel inspired reading about someone's successes and decide you too will take the plunge and begin your own journey. Whether it's someone's beach body, their startup or career, you can easily find yourself signing up for a gym membership, registering a domain or applying for a new job before the day is over and day dream about looking back at that moment in time as when everything changed.
Inspiration however, is short lived. And inspiration alone won't get you past the struggles and difficulties, nor convince you that the path your on is actually the correct one. Things at the gym start getting hard? That's when its easiest to convince yourself that you are only going to build up stamina and "health" and bulking up looks ugly anyway. Startup idea get a little difficult? Well that's when you'll find yourself coming up with all the reasons your startup will fail and why it's a bad idea and that you should instead concentrate on this new idea you have that is actually much better and has far more potential and you'll definitely see it to the end this time.
It is however, in sharing in failures that you overcome this, sharing in both your own and other peoples. It is with them sharing in their failures and struggles and then seeing them overcome it through hard work, determination or sheer luck, that you begin to realise how possible it is for yourself to overcome all your own difficulties or know that you can still prevail and that helps you stay motivated even in the most difficult of times.
Having a community of experts around you willing to freely share their broad knowledge is something truly indispensable for anyone taking on a new challenge. These micro-networks are often filled with people of all expertise levels on a wide range of related subjects and more often than not, anything you yourself are curious about (within the confines of the goal of the micro-network), someone else has already thought of and found a solution for.
Goals, Encouragement and Accountability
Accountability can be the greatest motivator and it's far harder to give up when you worry about all the people who helped you along the way and who you'd be disappointing in doing so and who's time you would have wasted by giving up.
Micro-networks often also includes elements of tracking your output both as a method of accountability and measuring goals. A great example of this is streaks in WIP.Chat. Complete a task every day and you see your streak go up, but skip even a single day and watch it go right back to zero having you start over again. While you might think this would have little impact on you, you would most likely be very wrong. Streaks work on multiple basic elements of human behaviour, one is that people hate to see all their hard work go to waste, and while a number on a website might seem meaningless, it still represents in your mind all the work and effort you put over the length of the streak in order to get that high, and so you will often find yourself pushing yourself to output anything at all in order to continue to see it increase, to the point where you would gladly give up watching the latest episode of Ballers in order to do so, and regardless of how tired you thought you were.
The second way streaks work, is they provide a sort of badge of honour for you to display to all your peers, serving as a token of validation of just how hard you are perceived to work, and while you might be a strong, fierce independent person, you'd be deluded if you thought you didn't care about how other people saw you.
And finally, while you might think that once you have missed a day and your streak has gone back to zero that it would be easy to give up, while that might be true at the start, once you do start your streak again you now have a new target, or beating your previous best streak, even if that streak if the current streak you are on.
Inspiration, motivation and drive, will at some point or another wear out, and at that point even accountability or the social stigma won't help you anymore and it is at that point that the micro-network truly comes into it's own. The members mostly all also been there before, they've almost certainly all felt being burnt out when the finish line is in sight, and know how important it is to keep pushing yourself and it is then when their encouragement and support will help get you back on track and see things through to the end, regardless of the outcome. And more importantly, they will often have a good consensus on how to achieve this. And yes, sometimes you do need to take a break, but it is with their encouragement that will help you get back to working to achieve your goals when you have had enough time to recover and feel refreshed.
Forming Productive Habits with Cue-Routing-Reward
Going back to the Cue-Routine-Reward, these micro-communities have using a lot of the qualities mentioned above, managed to begin to rework the habits of it's members to instead benefit them for the end goal of being more productive in their accomplishment of goals and an improved mental state.
Cue's could be anything, such as a new day starting, or someone posting an update that reminds you to start yourself, while the reward could be as simple as a message of congratulations from a peer or a number on a streak badge going up by 1 on your public profile. But most importantly, it's members now feel a belonging to the network, while simultaneously working to improve their own lives and crushing their goals in ways that are simply too difficult to do alone, (un)coincidently hitting three of the five tiers in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Love/belonging, Esteem, Self-Actualization), things social networks have begun to take away.
And it is from this that we are seeing more and more micro-networks form, taking away attention from existing social network giants where it's members now might feel ostracized, overwhelmed, mentally numbed, unproductive, unsuccessful and no longer belonging. And most importantly, while these micro-networks still rely on the same behaviour and habit formations for their own success and that of their members, the habits are healthy. And healthy habits are no longer addictions.