Digital Kinship: How the Internet Is Reacting to the Loneliness Epidemic

The Shift from Individualistic to Communal

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Hi Everyone 👋,

This week’s piece is a long and wide-ranging exploration of how the internet is reacting to our loneliness epidemic. The piece may get clipped in your inbox because of its length, but you can read it on the Digital Native website here.

There are lots of thoughts in here, many disjointed and half-baked, but the throughline is that we’re seeing a cultural shift back to community over individualism. The internet is powering that shift.


Digital Kinship: How the Internet Is Reacting to the Loneliness Epidemic

We’re living through a loneliness epidemic. A recent survey found that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46%) or left out (47%). Over half—54%—feel that no one knows them well. Across the Atlantic, half of Brits over 65 consider the television or a pet to be their main source of company.

All of these surveys came before a global pandemic demanded isolation and eroded social ties. Humans are social animals and for the past year, most of us have been deprived of meaningful interactions. Research has shown that “third places”—communal gathering spots that aren’t your home or office—are critical to social connection. Many of these third places (schools, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, gyms) shut down for the last 12 months.

We’re at a unique moment in time—probably more isolated than we’ve ever been—but the pandemic is only the latest notch in the steady march of loneliness. Over the last 50 years, communities have atrophied. Take church membership. When Gallup reported last month that U.S. church membership fell below 50% for the first time, it was the continuation of a sharp decline since 2000.

Whether you view the decline of church membership as a positive or negative trend, churches were a community hub. Along similar lines, community arts and recreation centers declined by 18% from 2008 to 2015. Today, people have fewer places to congregate, converse, and find belonging.

David Brooks has written extensively about the erasure of community. The human story, he argues, is that of an arc from communal to individualistic. For thousands of years, humans lived in tribes that defined kinship not as something biological, but as something you create. Those tribes evolved into large families in the 1700s and 1800s: parents had many kids (10 or more wasn’t uncommon) partly because many children died in infancy, and partly because farm work demanded many helpers.

Only in the mid-1900s did the idea of the “nuclear family” fully emerge—2.5 kids and a white picket fence. This was the moment when American values most prized the community over the individual. (In a 1957 survey, more than half of respondents said that unmarried people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.”) But starting in the 1960s, rhetoric began to emphasize self-reliance over solidarity.

The frequency of the word “I” in American books doubled from 1965 to 2008. A study of magazines found that themes of family dominated in the 50s—“Love means self-sacrifice and compromise”—only to be replaced by themes of independence in the 60s—“Love means self-expression and individuality”. Baby Boomers came of age with a cultural language of liberation (think Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”).

Family structures changed rapidly. From 1970 to 2012, the share of households consisting of married couples with kids was cut in half. Single-person households rose from 13% to 28%. A century ago, 75% of Americans older than 65 lived with relatives; by 1990, only 18% did.

But Millennials and Gen Zs are coming of age in a world radically different than the world Baby Boomers grew up in. As Brooks puts it:

“Children can now expect to have a lower quality of life than their parents, the pandemic rages, climate change looms, and social media is vicious. Their worldview is predicated on threat, not safety.”

This positions culture for a pendulum swing back to community over self. The internet will be key to rediscovering kinship. If the last 50 years saw a shift to the individual, the next 50 will see a shift to the collective—and digital connections will be the driving force of that sea change. I’m going to look at three ways that I’m seeing the internet react to the loneliness epidemic:

  1. How people are finding intimacy with digital creators,

  2. How belonging is replacing status as the core human need online, and

  3. How all parts of the economy are becoming more social.


1️⃣ Creators Are Your New Best Friend

One of the most fascinating stories of the pandemic—and one closely tied to the loneliness epidemic, in my mind—has been the explosive growth of OnlyFans. OnlyFans, which is about 98% adult content, added as many as 500,000 users per day in 2020 and swelled to $400 million in revenue.

Lucy Mort explains OnlyFans’ growth as “the commodification of intimacy.” Online relationships with OnlyFans creators become replacements for real-life intimacy. In an interview with The New York Times, the pornstar Dannii Harwood put it plainly:

“You can get porn for free. Guys don’t want to pay for that. They want the opportunity to get to know somebody they’ve seen in a magazine or on social media. I’m like their online girlfriend.”

As Lucy notes, the concept of digital girlfriends has existed in Japan for years; the game LovePlus lets players turn to digital girlfriends for intimacy:

“Even as LovePlus players acknowledge that their lovers are virtual, many say the support and affection they receive feels real…[players find] refuge in the unwavering support of a woman who can never, ever leave them…The women can be programmed, with their moods and personalities adjusted to suit the desires of the player.”

OnlyFans builds on these same desires: by paying for intimacy, men don’t face rejection. Business model decisions like locked DMs that seem personal, but were sent en masse, are also built for contrived intimacy at scale.

Other creator platforms offer similar (though perhaps less extreme) connections between creator and consumer. Patreon lets fans support creators; Superpeer lets fans book time with creators; Discord lets fans chat with creators in private servers. Twitch’s fastest-growing category is “Just Chatting”, a mishmash of non-gaming livestreams where creators casually hang out with fans. “Just Chatting” grew 300% in the last year and is now bigger than always-popular Twitch livestreams for Fortnite, Among Us, and League of Legends combined.

Especially popular is the mukbang—livestream eating. Mukbangs became popular in South Korea—the word is a mash-up of the Korean words “muk-ja” (let's eat) and “bang-song” (broadcast)—and have since gone global. It’s more and more common to see creators host mukbangs on Twitch, TikTok, and Instagram Live.

A more recent (and bizarre) phenomenon is creators sleeping while livestreaming.

There’s even a leaderboard for sleep streamers:

Social eating and livestream sleeping both reflect the internet’s shift to authenticity and always-on creation / consumption. The lines between the physical and digital dissolve, and online friends become as important as real-world friends.

The incredible Alice and Faye at High Tea wrote about a fascinating creator, Victoria Paris, this week. Over the past month, Victoria has gained 16,000 TikTok followers per day by relentlessly sharing her life. She posts up to 80 TikToks each day (!), many chronicling her most mundane moments.

I was chatting recently with a teenage girl who said that she considers Emma Chamberlain a closer friend than most of her IRL friends. She knows Emma intimately—like Victoria, Emma films almost every moment of her life—and relates to her. Relatability has become the heart of a creator’s appeal, a far cry from the aspiration and elusiveness desired in celebrities of past eras (Marilyn Monroe, Angelina Jolie, Kylie Jenner, etc).

Friday nights used to be about wearing a messy bun and sweatpants and hanging out on the couch with your friends. Now Friday nights are joining your favorite creator’s mukbang, or watching Victoria Paris’ TikTok, or chatting with other Emma Chamberlain stans on Discord. Strangers on the internet are the new best friends.


2️⃣ The Shift from Status to Belonging

There’s an old refrain that every consumer company is built on one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Tinder is “Lust”, Netflix is “Sloth”, Twitter is “Wrath”, Instagram is “Envy”, and so on. There are elements of truth to that, but I’d broaden it (and maybe take a less cynical approach): every consumer company is built on a few core human needs, and those needs don’t change much over time.

If the 2010s were about people’s need for “status” online—manifesting in curated Instagram feeds and filtered selfies—then the 2020s are about people’s need for “belonging”. Because of how isolated we’ve become—a result of the social and cultural shifts mentioned above, accelerated by the pandemic—we’ll see an emphasis on communal bonding over performative individualism.

We’re seeing this in companies driving the zeitgeist. Elements of Clubhouse are performative (and elements of social platforms always will be) but much of the app’s appeal is that it nurtures deep and serendipitous connections in real time. Last week, for instance, users shared Holocaust stories and family histories in a raw and moving Clubhouse room. The same urge for belonging powers Yoni Circle, a startup that lets groups of women connect around vulnerable and authentic storytelling. And Discord’s and Reddit’s highly-engaged niche servers and subreddits are also about bonding over shared experiences and worldviews.

One of the most interesting companies built around belonging is Bilibili, a $40 billion market cap Chinese company that’s like a mishmash of YouTube, Twitch, Patreon, and Netflix. Lillian Li has a good overview of Bilibili here, and I recently read through a February 2021 investor presentation to get a better feel for the business (screenshots below). Bilibili isn’t well-known in the U.S., so I’ll give some highlights; I’m starting to see “Bilibili for the West” become a more frequent descriptor of startups, and it’s worth unpacking what makes Bilibili unique.

Bilibili has 202 million monthly active users (putting it not far behind Snapchat) who are averaging an incredible 75 minutes of daily engagement (for reference, Instagram and TikTok are 53 minutes and 52 minutes, respectively).

Bilibili is essentially a hub for interest-based communities. It originated as a place for anime enthusiasts, but has since expanded to music, dance, science, film, fashion, and more. Bilibili is built on a trifecta that elegantly captures the future of consumer internet companies: user-generated content, commerce, and community.

And in keeping with recent pieces on business model innovation (How to Monetize Culture), Bilibili has a multi-pronged approach to monetization that isn’t reliant on advertising.

But what’s most unique about Bilibili is how engaged and retentive its communities are. Bilibili achieves this by building friction into community. In order to join a Bilibili community, users must pass a 100-question test. A sample question from the quiz to join the Game of Thrones community, according to Lillian: “Which of the following is not part of the Faith of Seven?” (For what it’s worth, I watched all eight seasons and there’s zero chance I could answer that question.) Bilibili used to require an 80% correct score to enter the community, though it’s gotten more lenient over time.

Building in friction means that communities are comprised only of superfans; 80% of users retain after 12 months. Imagine how much more engaged Discord and Reddit groups would be if they had to prove fandom to enter a community. Bilibili is a fascinating case study in how people seek out deep connection with others who share niche interests, and I expect we’ll see similar models emerge in the U.S.

We’re also seeing gaming become more social. Today, many games are less about winning and more about hanging out with friends. Grand Theft Auto added a casino that serves no purpose in the game beyond socializing; it’s a digital watering hole.

Fortnite launched Party Royale, an alternative to Battle Royale that is solely about hanging out in the game. Party Royale has hosted blockbuster in-game concerts with artists like Travis Scott (27 million attendees) and Marshmello (10 million attendees).

And Roblox remains the most underrated social network out there—daily active users spend almost 3 hours a day in Roblox. Framed differently, that’s about 1 of every 5 waking hours. Roblox games are built for socializing and connection.


3️⃣ The Socialization of the Economy

Every aspect of the economy is becoming more community-centric. In The Decade of Internet Communities, I wrote about how finance, education, and healthcare are each becoming more social.

Finance: Finance has traditionally been a solo pursuit, and investing with Robinhood or E*TRADE remains relatively solitary. But new companies are making investing more social. CommonStock operates a group chat that lets people share investment knowledge and ideas. Public.com bills itself as “the investment social network” with the tagline “make the stock market social”. In a way, both formalize the community of r/WallStreetBets—another proofpoint of social finance.

Education: MOOCs—massive open online courses—were the first iteration of online education. What MOOCs got wrong was removing camaraderie from education: learners were left on their own, staring at their screens. As a result, course completion rates for companies like Coursera, Udacity, and Udemy were dismal—often as low as 5%. The next wave of online education emphasizes community. For kids, this could mean taking an Outschool class or connecting with their favorite creator through interactive Hellosaurus content. For adults, this could mean taking a cohort-based Maven course. In How Technology and COVID-19 Are Reinventing Education, I wrote about the “unbundling of college.” College is only partly about learning; it’s also about socialization. For many people, the cost of college is untenable and they’ll find learning in one place and community somewhere else. The best education companies, meanwhile, will build community into their product.

Healthcare: Healthcare is a deeply personal and emotional sector, making it a natural fit for community building. Real is an example within mental health: Step 4 of Real’s mental health journey is “Find Community”, described as “Connect with other members who know just how you feel.”

Finding connection online isn’t just a consumer trend. Enterprise software is becoming more social. Companies like Figma, Notion, and Airtable have vibrant communities, and “Head of Community” is a more common title to see at leading software companies. At Index, we recently led the seed and Series A in Common Room, which helps companies manage and grow their communities.

In every sector, people are clamoring for human interaction and meaningful connection. Pieces of the economy that have historically been solitary are instead emphasizing solidarity.


Final Thoughts

Friendship accounts for 60% of the difference in happiness between people, and studies have shown that one of the key markers for midlife satisfaction is being able to rattle off the names of a few close friends. Over the next generation, friendships will increasingly exist online. Kinship will go digital.

I’ve shared the below framework before, but I’ll share it again because I think it captures how social communication is evolving.

Rings 2 and 3 are about status, and they dominated the 2010s. Rings 1 and 4 are about community, and they’ll dominate the 2020s. People will turn to 1-to-1 and small-group messaging for intimacy: more WhatsApp, less Instagram; more Messenger, less Facebook. On the other end of the spectrum, people will discover connections with strangers through AI-powered platforms like TikTok and Clubhouse. These are the platforms that connect us with strangers and that create communities around us that we didn’t even know we craved belonging to.

Going back to the concept of a “third place”, experts emphasize that a central component of a third-place social ecosystem is familiarity, but not intimacy. These are Ring 4 platforms. And research shows that a healthy social diet consists of both quality conversations and casual small talk. This is the combination of Rings 1 and 4.

We’ll have deep relationships not only with our closest real-world friends, but also with digital friends: creators on Twitch, fellow community members on Bilibili, peers in a Maven cohort-based course. The best internet companies will be built to help people discover and nurture these online relationships.

Younger people hunger for connection and intimacy in a culture that’s grown more self-reliant and lonely. The internet is where they’ll find it.


Sources & Additional Reading


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