Chances are, Eugene Wei’s epic tome, Status as a Service, found its way to you this week. At 74 pages, it’s a long read that most people may, unfortunately, abandon ten minutes in. So, having read it, allow me to convey status by exploring Wei’s article and how it relates to human nature.

An ancient mating ritual
An ancient mating ritual

You may be familiar with the “come for the tool, stay for the network” theory of building a new social network. In short, creating a tool solves the chicken-egg problem of launching a social platform. By providing a single-user tool (IE photo filters) to draw in users, the platform can then build social elements around it (Instagram). In Status as a Service, Wei outlines a deeper psychological basis for social networks. Put simply, humans are “status seeking monkeys” and will do whatever they can to maximize status and minimize the work required to obtain it. Most people would agree with this innate human characteristic.

I believe it was Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter, who said that the key to creating a great product is to take an innate human behavior, then make it ten times better, ten times easier or both. Social platforms have enabled status-building to be ten times easier and better, so the success and global impact of our social media landscape begin to make a lot more sense.

Enabling the easier (the ease is relative) accumulation of status through social platforms creates value for the user and the platform itself. Central to this two-way exchange is that “Value is tied to scarcity, and scarcity on social networks derives from proof of work,” Wei says. Put another way, to earn social capital on a platform like Instagram, you must work by posting a compelling photo. That posted photo creates status, so your next photo reaches more people. A feedback loop is then created wherein you post more and feed the platform the attention it needs to survive.

Such platforms seem to be trending toward more base human nature. It started with a broad appeal to connect via MySpace and Facebook, simple text updates on Twitter, and perfectly filtered photos on Instagram. Emerging platforms are going deeper into human instinct, while exploiting niches within. Look no further than dancing and mating.

Dancing is a primitive form of expression. While dancing videos on YouTube have long been popular, they used to be one-offs, only occasionally deriving social capital for its creator and platform. Then TikTok (formerly took off. TikTok has created 10x social capital from dancing. Dancing has always had a lot of local social capital as seen on display daily at clubs or concerts. The best dancer will “win”, in the form of attention but often as the beginning of a mating ritual.

In retrospect, dancing as social status is brilliant because it’s an innate human behavior that wasn’t obvious to bring online. There is a wide skill gap in dancing, with most people not being very talented. This creates an ecosystem across the status capital value chain, with the top performers gaining fame on TikTok, lots of bad people trying to compete, even more people viewing, and opportunities to teach the less gifted on other platforms. For instance, there are plenty of million+ view instructional dance videos, specifically designed for TikTok users. I wouldn’t be surprised if kids were taking local dance lessons just to be better at TikTok.

If you’ve ever been to a club, this should all look very familiar.

But TikTok is at risk to meet the same fate as most nightclubs: going out of fashion (and user churn as people age out of this particular form of status signaling). How long will people dance for internet points? As Wei says, “If you want to know the terminal value of a network … first ask yourself how many people have the skill and interest to compete in that arena.”  While TikTok and its community spread different dances across the network, as my wife can attest, most people are terrible dancers. That greatly limits the amount of people who will participate. TikTok may want to introduce more status challenges beyond dancing and lip syncing, and perhaps seasonality to bring back and introduce new dances.

Fortnite has also capitalized on dancing, but it approached the status signaling from the opposite end of the value chain. Instead of learning how to be a great dancer and filming for  Likes, Fortnite players can win or purchase dances and emotes. The goal of conveying status amongst peers is the same no matter which way a user goes about displaying it. Plus, many Fortnite dances are popular on TikTok, creating a self-reflective dance ecosystem.

It’s one thing to be the best dancer in a club in Cleveland, Seattle or even Los Angeles. It’s another to be the best dancer on TikTok. Wei explains that “It’s difficult to overstate what a momentous sea change it was for hundreds of millions, and eventually billions, of humans who had grown up competing for status in small tribes, to suddenly be dropped into a talent show competing against EVERY PERSON THEY HAD EVER MET.” Suddenly, the club is global.

TikTok figured out that by digitizing one of the oldest forms of human status signaling, they could receive all the benefits of a trendy club, with a lot less downside. In viewing social networks through the lens of status, skipping the club and going right home “for a drink”, is also a no-brainer.

It was only a decade ago when it was considered weird to meet your potential partner online. In the 90s, there were plenty of newspaper(!) articles about people meeting online and getting married, because it was so unusual. Now that status is available on a global stage, social media status is an important part of many modern mating strategies.

Push a button. Get a reward. Push a button. Get a reward …

For a single person, a primary goal of building status is to find a mate, again human nature at work. If you take digital status and add sex – the zenith of all human rewards – out comes Tinder. Chasing Instagram “likes” is one thing, but the dopamine short circuiting that must occur to heavy Tinder users is likely to have some unintended consequences.

Swipe -> message -> sex. Swipe -> message -> sex.

Ultimately, we always fall back on our base human instincts. Technology seeks out every opportunity to exploit those instincts, and is generally rewarded for doing so. Posting a funny one-liner, a photo or a dance… Funny that they call them “status” updates, isn’t it?

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