Why social apps that create intentional moments will rise above endless consumption
This piece was featured in the digital tech publication, Every.
⚠️ Time to BeReal. ⚠️ By now you’ve seen—and more likely heard—this notification go off at a random time each day. You take a two-minute break to snap a photo—maybe a few times to get a nice one—and share it with your friends. BeReal’s novel mechanic is representative of an emerging era of social media that stands apart from the legacy social media giants we all know.
Big social—my moniker for the collective of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube—is emblematic of what I call habitual social. Habitual social apps depend on having a large daily user base, usually measured as daily active users, or DAUs. The more time each user spends, the happier the platform.
Habitual social apps thrive off of your bad habits—things that you’ve become wired to do. The notorious “doomscrolling” means consuming until you run out of content, you’re interrupted, or you’re painfully aware of the time sink. This is increasingly my experience using Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok, and, in a past era, Instagram and Facebook.
Some things feel different, though—taking a few moments out of my day to play Wordle or post to BeReal. I do these consciously and attentively, as daily rituals, and I’m optimistic that social products can foster rituals, not just habits. Ritual social apps aim to create regular, purposeful moments, even if small ones; they’re at their best as a mindful microdose of meaning and feel-good.
In consumer social, rituals have been likened to just a feature, a mechanic, or a new entry strategy. They haven’t been celebrated as the main thing. But I see huge potential for rituals to be a core element of social products. In fact, I believe the next era of social will be defined by products that create rituals rather than habits.
Habit vs. routine vs. ritual
Habits are things we do that get so ingrained that they become automatic. They come with familiar urges to do something, usually triggered by a cue. We might have the urge to check our phone for messages, emails, and likes as soon as we wake up each morning (or when we get a notification).
We can develop habits around work, play, or patterns of thinking. They can give us highs (the dopamine hits), reinforcing habits and even pushing to addiction. Not all habits are bad, but the bad ones are hard to stop because they’re so ingrained.
The difference between habit, routine, and rituals. (Source: Ness Labs)
Routines require more commitment to maintain. For many of us, going to the gym or intermittent fasting are routines; we have to make a conscious effort to maintain them, or else we’ll stop.
Rituals require the most intention. Rituals have meaning beyond the action itself; they celebrate the purpose, the “why” of a repeated action. A daily meditation practice or even a few moments of quiet while solving the New York Times crossword can be rituals that give us comfort and joy.
Colloquially, we think of a ritual as something we do regularly and in the same way every time. Definitions aside, a ritual has a few key characteristics:
It’s intentional. You consciously engage and are present.
It’s participatory. You’re active rather than passive.
It’s meaningful. It’s valuable beyond the action itself or any utility. It’s often emotional—e.g. nostalgic, fun, celebratory, identity-forming.
It’s consistent. It’s reliable in timing, expectation, quality, etc.
It’s finite. There’s a constraint around time, effort, or action itself.
Ritual social apps in the wild
Most of the experiences we think of as rituals happen IRL. But rituals can be created online or in an app, and they can be social.
I’ve explored building ritual-based products since last year, unlocking meaningful moments in the process. It’s become clear to me that rituals can be built around both traditional social products (e.g., sharing photos with friends) and around social games or tools.
Here’s a run-down of apps in the wild (i.e., in the app store or on the public web) whose core experience offers many, if not all, of the “ritual” traits described above. Four of these eight apps have previously raised funding from VCs (a total of $100 million reported to date); others are bootstrapped or, if new, still choosing a path forward.
BeReal: Share an authentic front-back selfie with friends once a day. Users are notified simultaneously to share a spontaneous photo every day at a different time. It’s about literally being real; you only have two minutes to post, with no filters. The “give-to-get” mechanism—you must post to unlock your friends’ posts—makes you actively engage. BeReal is leading the new wave of friend-focused, photo-sharing apps and reportedly has over 20 million DAUs. (As an early investor, I’m a bit biased.)
Cappuccino: Share daily updates with friends as a mini-group podcast. Every day at the same time of your choosing, you’re asked to record a short audio clip of less than three minutes. The final compilation is shared to the group the next morning.
Dispo: Take retro-style photos that you can’t see until tomorrow. It’s about capturing spontaneous moments, not attaining selfie perfection. You can take pics any time but they’re only “developed” once a day—the epitome of “create whenever but wait to consume.”
HQ Trivia: Compete in a quick game of trivia twice a day. HQ Trivia is a ritual social game (and a storied one, now hosted once a week). Simple games are more participatory than passive consumption formats. And the single live, public show per week helps get critical mass, resulting in a collective experience.
Letterloop: Share regular updates with friends via a group newsletter. Users answer the same set of questions, sharing updates or anecdotes to stay in touch and build connections. The group chooses the timing, usually weekly or monthly.
Lobby: Catch up with friends for just one minute, once a week. It initially started as a nightly video hangout with your friends (think Houseparty but one that ends). It’s now focused on 1:1 catch-ups for just one minute at the best time as mutually determined by both parties each week.
Sush: Raise virtual pet “sushi” with friends. You pick one friend to share each pet with (and you can raise many). If you don’t care for them regularly (read: daily), they may die or leave you for “new horizons.” Sush is a more intimate, ritual social game.
Wordle: Solve a five-letter daily word puzzle. The single-player game is live at midnight every day and requires just a few minutes of focus. It gives you a sense of accomplishment; you can hack ways to do it with friends or family. The sharable yellow-green score grids heighten the collective experience.
How product constraints create rituals
To create rituals, products need constraint and specificity. Constraint is about what the product allows; specificity is about what you want users to do.
Where this comes through in the product isn’t so prescriptive. Here are some examples of product features, mechanics, and formats that can help create rituals:
In a give-to-get model, you have to create to be able to consume. Why is this good? The canonical 90/9/1 rule of big social says 90% of users lurk, 9% contribute a little, and 1% a lot. Give-to-get means every active user contributes. It’s a mechanic that encourages presence and participation—something core to ritual apps.
BeReal makes you post before you can see your friends’ posts. Glassdoor is a great legacy example of the “give-to-get” mechanic; for example, in order to read employer reviews, users must post their own review.
Content is abundant and attention is scarce. Habitual social apps serve as much as you’ll take—the feed of content seems endless and is available 24/7 But, limiting supply can help set up a long-lasting ritual.
Wordle’s single puzzle a day is refreshing. It feels low commitment, and you get a sense of accomplishment from “completing” a defined task. You also can’t binge and get bored of the format or burn out from overexposure in a short period of time.
Scheduled or timed release
Whether you want a user to create, participate, or consume, you can let them do it any time or make consistent timing a feature. For multiplayer experiences, allowing a user to create at any time but wait to consume is one ritual-building mechanic.
Cappuccino collects “beans” throughout the day and prompts you to listen to the compilation the next day (you can set a custom time). Dispo is similar, allowing photos to be taken any time, but only revealing them at a set time the next day. Letterloop lets group members answer questions any time, but sends out the finished group newsletter at a set future time (e.g., weekly).
The ever-powerful notifications, when used correctly and sparingly, can be a great reminder and call to action. And the more consistent and actionable, the better.
BeReal does this well—users know to expect just one notification per day that prompts them to share. More broadly, “once daily” or weekly apps such as Lobby reliably limit the number of notifications sent per time period. Contrast this with habitual social apps that send seemingly unlimited notifications based on a complex, opaque algorithm.
Habitual social apps rely on extrinsic drivers—likes, views, follows—as incentives. But the consistency underlying ritual apps can itself be gamified to create a sense of achievement and joy, something that has intrinsic value and can be amplified extrinsically.
Snap streaks is a defining example of this mechanic; streaks count the number of consecutive days that two friends have sent each other a snap. Users who maintain long streaks with friends revel in the strength of the relationship. Sush builds streaks into a more game-like format with a pet shared by you and a friend. Streaks can be single-player, too (e.g., Wordle streaks, BeReal memories).
Social products are often defined by their graph structure, or more colloquially by phrases like close friends, mutuals, groups, following, for you, etc. In multi-player formats, graph structure tells us who directly impacts our experience. Single-player experiences can still be social, albeit indirectly through shared context. A collective experience can turn an otherwise private ritual into something social.
Wordle is a single-player game that’s indirectly social because everyone’s solving the same puzzle each day and sharing scores is encouraged. The simple, visual sharing format of Wordle stands out among solo games.
Exploring the boundaries of ritual social
Ritual social isn’t about occupying as much time and attention as possible. It’s about having a special place in someone’s day or week— and that may well be a recipe for long-term success.
Deliberately setting constraints may seem antithetical to growth or engagement. But they might also be what earns you a place in the hearts of users, not just in their minds or at their fingertips.
After all, rituals are a delicate balance of art and science. Something “meaningful” and “intentional” can’t be achieved with rules and rigidity. A purposeful culture, and ideally a community that reinforces this at scale, must emerge.
There are undoubtedly more questions to explore as more ritual social apps emerge:
What makes a ritual likely to gain adoption? Rituals don’t have to be low commitment, but the less they ask of you, the more likely I believe they catch on. For example, I’m more likely to start a new one-minute ritual than a one-hour ritual. And given the focus on participation, lowering the tangible and psychological barriers to contribution is key.
What does success look like for ritual social apps? As with all social apps, growth, retention, and monetization are critical in the long term. But ritual apps should have a quality-over-quantity mindset that also prioritizes active over passive usage and consistency over intensity. Similarly, monetization should align platform and user incentives; this could mean more direct models (e.g. subscriptions, in-app purchases) since ad-based models want to maximize reach and time spent. Philosophically, success is perhaps a user base with a healthy relationship to the app.
Can ritual social apps be big, or are they little social? It’s more a question of how big any emerging social apps can become now; very few will ever reach the scale of a Facebook or TikTok or maybe even a Twitter. It’ll depend on format, graph structure, network effects, and, of course, timing. But you could argue that big social will always have the potential to be larger than little social because the former tries to capture 100% of attention.
Can ritual social apps become habitual over time? Yes. All you have to do is remove constraints and appeal more to human vice. Morning coffee rituals aren’t too far from a caffeine addiction, after all. And on the business side, aggressive pushes for growth and higher engagement would risk tipping the balance in the wrong direction.
Ultimately, we have to wait and see how ritual social apps fare as mature products. Regardless, I’m convinced the mechanics tried along the way will have a lasting impact and define this next era of online social connection. Because in an environment where every legacy social app competes for as much of our attention as possible, products that ask for just a little of our time and give us regular, meaningful moments in return will stand apart.
If you’re thinking about, building, or investing in consumer social, media, or gaming, I’d love to hear your thoughts on habits versus rituals and the next era of social connection. You can reach me on Twitter.