E.gg and the quest for cool
Facebook is trying to engineer the next cool thing on the internet
|Rapha Menezes||Nov 29, 2020||2|
“Creativity as its own solitary reward” writes the team behind E.gg in a manifesto for their new, rather oddball product. It's hard to believe this is being developed by Facebook given how out there it all feels. Here at the Kitchen, we focus more on the craft than the strategic whos and whys, but it shouldn't surprise anyone that Facebook is looking for the next cool thing. Instagram hasn't aged well, and the threat from TikTok and Snap loom large in Menlo Park. For us, this is an opportunity to crack an egg and get a taste of an experienced product team trying to cook an exotic dish. Let's go!
Status and memes
E.gg hasn't been widely released yet, so let me first give their pitch: E.gg is a platform for people to unleash their creativity, making and sharing free-form collages (or pages) meant to be expressions of who you are and what you love.
E.gg bets heavily on an “early internet” vibe with colorful, playful, unpolished visuals. Some called it "Geocities vibes”. This is an interesting choice, first because it's the opposite of Instagram, where users share perfectly polished versions of themselves. Second, a more playful vibe means lower friction to create content (anything goes!), and that breeds creativity. And this is a key thing that E.gg is trying to get right: promoting creative freedom, a judgment-free space for self-expression. It's quite logical, then, that they've decided to leave out Like counts and comments for content created in the platform.
Like other social networks, E.gg is at its heart ruled by status games, and to earn status in the network one must put in the work. Eugene Wei discussed this dynamic in his piece Status as a Service:
"[Social] value is tied to scarcity, and scarcity on social networks derives from proof of work. Status isn't worth much if there's no skill and effort required to mine it. It's not that a social network that makes it easy for lots of users to perform well can't be a useful one, but competition for relative status still motivates humans."
In E.gg, pages you create are your proof of work. They can showcase your creativity and give you a higher status in the network. Or at least in theory, because the product now rewards creators only via notifications of likes and follows, since like counts and comments are not a thing. It's unclear if that will be enough reward for creators to invest into this particular status game. TikTok has been very successful on that front, slapping counts for everything in the UI (likes, comments, shares), precisely to fuel its own status game.
A product of the meme culture, E.gg bets on memes as core ingredients for content creation. As we've seen play out on TikTok and Instagram, people love to remix, reuse, and reenact. On E.gg, there's a vast library of content bits, from GIFs (from Facebook's Giphy, of course), to stickers, text, and free-hand painting. You can add as many bits as you want to an empty canvas. You can easily manipulate elements on the screen, with multitouch optimized interactions such as pinching to resize, as well as dragging and rotating bits around with your fingers. It all works pretty well, and the UX will feel very familiar to Instagram or Snap users.
A refreshing interaction design done by E.gg is on the canvas itself, letting content grow vertically indefinitely. While TikTok and Instagram force fit content into one screen, here you can literally expand your own creativity. Although the usability for scrolling vertically while creating a page can feel a bit wonky at times, it still works. Looking at what's already on E.gg, it's clear that this form factor has potential to generate some interesting, novel content that wouldn't be easily created in other platforms. It fits particularly well for longer, more tight-knit visual stories made for vertical scrolling, from things like journaling to sharing your favorite cooking recipes.
It's only cool if it's viral
TikTok is so appealing to creators because of its democratic access to gaining status within the network. Contrary to Facebook or Instagram, your reach isn't defined by a personal graph, but instead by an algorithm that will reward you if you're making content people engage with. This seems to be the same approach taken by E.gg with it's Curated feed. Given the early stage of the platform, I'd expect this feed to still be mostly an editorial feed with a lot of manual, human curation. Like TikTok, viral distribution within the network is fundamental for E.gg, because that's how good creators get their status rewards. As the platform acquires more users and content (training data!), it will likely become more and more a purely algorithmic feed.
Another key decision to facilitate virality is to make E.gg pages standalone web pages, accessible and shareable outside of the app, on any device or social network. Apart from dramatically increasing the reach of this content, it also doubles as a nifty growth loop: every E.gg page has a link back to E.gg's home page, creating an organic user acquisition channel as people create and share more E.gg pages around the web. For a product that is so tightly connected to a behavior of sharing memes, this can be a true home run.
Another interesting virality quirk could be in the bits themselves. In E.gg, you can tap any element on any page (yours or not), which gives you a swipeable view of every E.gg page that has used that same bit. I'm not entirely sure how this will play out, but my hunch is that it could become a way for people to explore viral memes. It could function similarly to tagging a video on TikTok, so that people can easily see all videos from users who have, for example, participated in that latest cool TikTok challenge you're so into. Here, it seems like bits could be creating more organic connections between content created in the platform, offering a way for bits—not just pages—to go viral. This could have a similar impact to music getting popular because of viral TikToks (👋 Fleetwood Mac fans!) or hashtags connecting discourse on Twitter. If E.gg takes off, sponsored bits and branded ads will surely follow.
Takeaways and what to watch for
It's hard, but not impossible to engineer the next cool thing. A recent report commissioned by Facebook showed that “about one-third of [the] top 100 most downloaded apps are new entrants each year”. This means that cool is a fleeting thing in the world of tech consumer products. Given the competitive landscape and how much ground Facebook has lost ground to TikTok and Snap recently, entertaining left field ideas such as E.gg became a necessity. Nobody really knows what a new generation of users will crown as the next cool thing!
The big question surrounding E.gg is a basic one for every social network: getting to critical mass. To jump start the network, this bet on a new content format needs to pay off. Users need to create pages on E.gg because it is a tool that fits their creative expression. If they can manage to pass that hurdle, then we're in network effects territory and here Facebook has deep, deep expertise to play with. Will this content format resonate enough to get it going? How will it fare competing for creators with TikTok? And is it really a wise bet to go content-first (or algorithm-first), instead of relying on personal connections (aka the social graph) like Muze is doing? Time will tell.
And there are more unknowns. For example, E.gg has stirred some controversy early in its life by how it dealt with artistic attribution. It's also unclear how they will handle more personal, sensitive content such as your own photos, given that every bit can be viewed and reused by anyone. As usual, content moderation will be a challenge, too. E.gg's success will likely hinge on two equally important parts: how much fun creative people will get from creating pages, and how much social capital reward they can extract from it to make them fully adopt this new social network. I'm optimistic that E.gg can succeed in the first part, but rather skeptical on the latter part.