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Exclusive – IRL is putting the ‘social’ back in social media

Quickly becoming the fastest way to build communities both online and offline, the pioneering platform is front and centre in the push for a more intimate internet.

In the digital age we’ve the world at our fingertips.

With a simple touch we can access anything we desire at any given time. Unless we choose otherwise we are never not connected, whether it be news outlets or social media platforms keeping us clued in on friends and family.

It’s a change to our social lives that has historically been accepted. We’ve mostly jumped into the digital world with little hesitation or regard for our real world time and relationships.

In 2022, however, that sentiment appears to be changing.

In fact, studies have shown that young people are beginning to retreat away from social media, yearning for real, meaningful connections that are more valuable than living entirely through a screen.

Here to meet this need and fuel our burgeoning desire for a more intimate internet is IRL (‘In Real Life’), an app that’s quickly becoming the fastest way to build communities both online and offline.

In doing so, it’s looking to put the ‘social’ (defined here as ‘needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities’) back in social media.

This particularly pertains to Gen Z, a demographic increasingly turning its attention to group platforms such as digital campfires thanks to the pandemic, which transformed our communication tools and video calling services.

‘Groups are a critical area in social networking as people continue to move away from communicating primarily in public feeds and private chats,’ says co-founder, Abraham Shafi, with whom we had the opportunity to speak to.

‘Other social platforms are all about recruiting followers. We believe it’s better, and more sustainable, to cultivate meaningful communities by giving everybody a voice and sense of belonging through the power of building durable communities online and in the real world.’

This is exactly the ethos of IRL, which originally burst onto the scene a couple of years ago but only recently started to gain serious traction in light of the gradually shifting mindsets of tech-dependents.

At its core, it’s seeking to help people find their people, to allow for the full spectrum of human behaviour beyond the limits of what social media is now renowned for: garnering an audience, which as Abe explains, is only good for some things.

 

‘Groups and communities are a completely different idea, they’re more about equal voices and participation rather than one person shouting through a megaphone,’ he says. ‘They’re where authentic social interaction takes place.’

Of course, given IRL’s rapid growth as of late, the question of how the company is aiming to maintain intimacy – touted as its primary focus – is posed.

Yet Abe assures us of the tireless work he and his team are doing to thread the needle between expansion and a sense of genuine togetherness.

‘Figuring out how to allow for both of those things to exist at the same time is our obsession,’ he explains.

‘For us, in order to be intimate, the platform needs to feel like a safe space. When you’re a product that’s all about getting together, discovering new friendships, and organising events based on shared passions, it needs to be about creating rules that help users feel comfortable engaging.’

Interestingly, the ‘rules’ Abe refers to here aren’t necessarily restrictive as the term suggests.

Because IRL is so community-centric, it’s the users that are in control, they’re the ones with the power to identify if discussions are getting overwhelming and consequently less intimate.

‘We’re always looking for super active members to anoint as an admin, specific groups will require specific things and it’s up to them to decide on what users will need to say or do up front to gain access,’ says Abe.

‘Plus, IRL may look like a messenger, but we’re launching things like ‘threading’ to keep conversations organised and high-quality. Tools that allow for large-scale exchanges to be condensed into more personalised channels.’

One such tool is IRL’s hugely popular polling feature.

Not only is it a ‘great icebreaker’ in that it lets users easily see which interests they are united in, but it can lead to breakout groups, where – based on how you vote – you can enter a chat with a maximum of 50 others and talk exclusively about an opinion you share.

Many such communities are already flourishing, around topics as varied as music, celebrity, sports, environmental issues, politics, fashion inspo, food, and travel (to name just a few currently being explored by IRL’s reported twenty million monthly active users and counting).

This brings us to what is most integral to IRL, aiding users with their migration from virtual to in-person interactions. Far-removed from the tendency of alternative platforms to foster an unhealthy culture of screen dependency, it actively empowers users to get out there – literally, in real life.

‘The top of the funnel is ‘’I’m interested in this, so I’m going to join the group and discuss it’’,’ says Abe.

‘Once you feel comfortable with those people, the next logical step is to meet up, which is the highest intimate moment in my opinion. Because that’s what people with shared interests do, whether it’s online or offline, they connect. The way we see it is to get people connected by helping them join a group and start chatting then as they build that comfort with each other, they’ll naturally meet up.’

It’s for this reason that IRL cares more about intention than attention when it comes to monetisation, to avoid having its users lose sight of what they’re there for.

Instead of tracking time-spent on the product and flooding the homepage with advertisements, IRL foresees the role of brands as overt, whereby they can create automatic updates and push notifications provided they’re on the terms of the recipient.

This sits alongside the option for users to connect with brands both through their event pages and direct message threads, the latter an inherently appealing feature for Gen Z especially, as gauging the intentions of who they’re buying from first-hand can be invaluable in the era of little transparency.

‘All social media is playing the attention game at the moment, if you go to Instagram, for example, they need to keep you on there as long as possible,’ says Abe.

‘We aren’t. We’re think about monetisable intent, a.k.a. leading you somewhere else and helping you find what you’re looking for because the attention game is what everyone’s competing for and it’s basically a race to the bottom. Keeping our distance from it allows us to be more authentic, meaningful, and valuable for our users.’

The ‘attention game’ that Abe touches upon is predominantly visible on TikTok which, despite being undoubtedly the quickest means of assembling a following out there right now, leans heavily towards encouraging pure voyeurism.

Essentially, creators are eternally battling with amassing incomprehensible follower counts that consist of very few people truly invested in what they do, those more drawn to mindless scrolling than they are to developing a significant connection with who they’re watching.

Fortunately, IRL is presenting a solution to this problem with its upcoming Community Partnership Programme.

The ultimate goal is to become a symbiosis between audience and community by assisting successful TikTokers with strengthening their bonds with dedicated fans and curating groups from their voyeurs.

‘As a TikToker with a following, IRL has allowed me to actually connect with my audience and industry, through building a community,’ professes WildCard, a musician already using IRL in this way.

‘It’s made it easy for artists in my community to meet not only online but create real life connections and friendships with each other. It’s bridged the gap and has given them a place to be themselves and grow.’

Run by people, not algorithms, IRL hits pause on the fleetingness we can no longer seem to escape from online.

In proactively working to inspire and grow the communities of tomorrow, it’s putting meaningful engagement – that’s more than mere follower counts – front and centre in the future of how we choose to use our devices.

‘Through our platform we’re confident we can give everybody a voice, change the social paradigm, and ultimately make social communication more meaningful,’ finishes Abe.

At a time when relentless over-saturation has become the norm, IRL is presenting a clear-cut path to forging long-lasting connections, and I’m sure you can agree with us when we say we hope it’s here to stay.

 

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