The anti-community product built for connection
Part 1 of a 3 part series on community product design
This is the first of three interviews to help me dive deeper into building magical community products. In the next two interviews, we’ll get to hear from of the Etsy founders, and a product manager that spent five years working on Facebook groups.
The folks over at Cocoon just launched the next version of their group messaging app.
Cocoon is an app to house the people you feel close to today, and want to feel even closer to tomorrow.
Current group messaging apps feel, at least to me, cluttered and chaotic. When I started using an updated version of Cocoon, the vibes felt dramatically different. Something about the design felt calm––a little more sacred.
I reached out to cofounder and CEO, Sachin Monga, to talk about group messaging and building community products. Read on to find out why Sachin calls Cocoon an anti-community product. (I’m going to guess that some of the top community thinkers, like Charles Vogl, would disagree with this statement, but I’ll let you decide for yourself!)
What would connection look like in 10 years, if Cocoon was the platform most used to house our closest connections?
"Connection" is a huge umbrella! Connecting with a stranger who shares a common interest, connecting with someone you might buy a couch from, and connecting with your mom are all very different activities. We're just in an awkward phase of the internet where all those activities happen in the same place. Whether Cocoon is the product that delivers on this or not, I'm pretty confident that "connection" will move away from a one-size-fits-all, into different spaces that are map more closely to the natural ways that those connections unfold.
How do you think about building community products? Do you have a framework you follow or guiding set principles?
I actually think in many ways that Cocoon is the anti-community product. It's private and personal instead. When you sign up for Cocoon there is no public directory of people or groups, and no way to meet new people or interact with anyone you don't already know. Cocoons map to existing social groups, most of which are probably too small to count as "communities".
However, when I think about communities one thing that comes to mind is that members of a community tend to share a common goal and identity. Groups using Cocoon definitely come in with a predefined shared identity, and usually their common goal is increasing their feeling of closeness. Both of these assumptions guide our design process — from making sure that you can present yourself entirely differently if you're in 2+ Cocoons (you pick a new nickname, picture, color), to making sure that naming your Cocoon is the first step in the creation process.
When someone enters a library, the design of the space informs our behavior. How can digital experiences inform the behavior of a user?
This is a big question! The design of the space is 100% what informs behavior, usually much more than the tools you have access to. Facebook is full of interesting examples. One reason that sharing intimately with friends and family Facebook "broke" was that News Feed — the space — became full of high quality public content from publishers and celebrities, raising the bar for sharing.
In general, I think of this as the difference between designing spaces where you can literally do a thing, and spaces where you would naturally do a thing. If you wanted to share a photo with your 5 family members, of course you could literally just send it to them in a text thread. You could also send it to them in an email, or print it out 5 times and send it in 5 separate letters. Sharing a Cocoon with the 5 of them doesn't unlock your ability to share this photo, but the way we've designed the space should make it feel like the most rewarding and natural way to do.
What Cocoon features do you hope increase bonds or create new connections?
Almost everything should be in service of the former, and everything should actually fight against the latter. Cocoon is probably one of the only "social" apps where you can't create new connections, and we actively try hard to make sure you don't do so accidentally.
When we launched, each Cocoon had a unique six-letter key that you shared with the people you wanted to join your Cocoon. A funny anecdote is that a few days after we launched, a tech blogger in the Middle East with a huge following tweeted about Cocoon and shared his key. The concept of using it with close-knit groups got lost in translation, and we had a flood of installs from people who thought it was a social network and joined his Cocoon. Since then, we've moved to a more secure system where the creator of a Cocoon has to pre-approve access to other members by selecting from their contacts, and there are no keys involved.
How do you think about creating products that increase member trust and safety?
A big part of this starts with the business model. We made a commitment on day one to never serve ads inside of Cocoon, and never monetize user data in any way. The only true trustworthy for a service like Cocoon to generate revenue is having a direct relationship with the user, so we recently announced our plans to transition Cocoon to a paid product.
In terms of safety, there are many layers to this. It's not really a box to check off, more of a dimension to continuously improve on. Moving away from a key code was one example, but I think of this is a constantly evolving process that will keep unfolding as we learn and grow.
I think we're at this ‘teenager stage’ of building digital products for communities and connection. We've created products that put a ton of weight on ideas (content) and opinions (identities), when there's so much more we can connect over that would bring us deeper joy and more authentic connections. (If you agree with me!) How do we move to the next stage?
Hmm, I think I agree at least on the surface level. One funny observation I remember from the early days of Cocoon was the realization that we spend most of our time on our phones just scrolling through other peoples' content. We just hop around from app to app: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, NYTimes, etc. — all ostensibly different products, but all vessels for the exact same activity.
We set out to build a space on your phone where scrolling through an infinite jar of content wasn't the primary activity, and I hope to see more spaces like that get built. I wrote some thoughts and a bit of a playbook about this on my website, in case anyone reading might find it interesting.
Thank you, Sachin, for sharing these really interesting thoughts on designing for connection. If there are any current connections of mine that want to join me on Cocoon, drop me a note.
And I’d be super curious to hear if you think Cocoon is an ‘anti-community’ app!