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Humans and technology

Why private micro-networks could be the future of how we connect

Forget amassing likes or cultivating your online persona. Apps like Cocoon are all about being your true self with just a select few people.
January 27, 2020
Cocoon families
Cocoon familiesEmily Haasch

One morning in her freshman year, Jasmine Sun got a text from her mom: “Don’t you have class right now? Why are you in your dorm?”

Her mom, Joan Chen, lives in the Seattle area and had noticed that Jasmine’s location cursor on Life360, the location-sharing service where family members can keep tabs on each other, was still in her dorm room at Stanford. Like many college students, Jasmine had overslept and had skipped lecture that day—something she didn't necessarily want her mom to know.

“My mom liked Life360.” Jasmine groans at the memory from her current dorm room at Oxford University, where she’s spending the semester. “But I didn’t have options about what I wanted to share.”

Now her family has a way of sharing what they want to when they want to. In November, ahead of her winter quarter at Oxford, Jasmine gently suggested that her mom and teen sister, who still lives at home, both download an app that had just announced its launch on Twitter: Cocoon, founded by two former Facebook employees, Alex Cornell and Sachin Monga.

On paper, Cocoon sounds a lot like Facebook: it wants to connect people in virtual space. The difference is that it only wants to connect family members in small, distinct groups. Imagine a feed of updates from family members—your brother announcing that he’d landed on his work trip, a video of your niece learning to walk, a location cursor on a cousin backpacking through Europe—all attached to a messaging capability that threads conversations, and all restricted to the members of your group (12 is the current maximum).

“It’s not necessarily about broadcasting highlights or crafting my identity or gaining status,” Monga says. “You occupy this space with just these people. There’s no network.”

Cocoon is one of a new wave of apps aiming to change the way we interact on social media. These new platforms don’t encourage you to accumulate likes or followers, or require that you diligently craft an online persona. Instead they want you to connect with a small, curated group of people, and that’s it.

Apps like Dex, founded by Kevin Sun, often make use of an old business standby, customer relationship management (CRM) software. CRMs are reliable and bland, akin to an Excel spreadsheet: they’re used to log the name of a contact alongside other relevant information, like birthdays, quirks, or passions.

“I was one of those people that had a spreadsheet for my friends and personal relationships,” says Sun, the founder of Dex, a personal CRM that its website claims “gives you relationship superpowers.” 

There’s also Monaru, founded by three Irish students who felt unmoored when they left college and came to the US. It employs a virtual concierge to help members remember birthdays, sending reminders to buy gifts or call a relative.  Patrick Finlay, a cofounder, tinkered with Excel and set up reminders to call his loved ones but found that intertwining his personal and professional lives was “weird.” Instead, for a fee, Monaru pings you every so often if the app notices you haven’t called a close friend or loved one. 

But if Dex and Monaru are trying to redefine the CRM, Cocoon wants to redefine social networks—and that’s a much bigger task.

Unwanted overlapping

The current social-media model isn’t quite right for family sharing. Different generations tend to congregate in different places: Facebook is Boomer paradise, Instagram appeals to Millennials, TikTok is GenZ central. (WhatsApp has helped bridge the generational divide, but its focus on messaging is limiting.)

Updating family about a vacation across platforms—via Instagram stories or on Facebook, for example—might not always be appropriate. Do you really want your cubicle pal, your acquaintance from book club, and your high school frenemy to be looped in as well?

“Social media treats everyone—a friend, a family member, an acquaintance—the same,” says Courtney Walsh, a lecturer in human development and family sciences at the University of Texas who consulted for Cocoon. “I would argue that what we are doing is impersonal on social media.”

Cocoon aims to change the way we share. It launched on Thanksgiving, with more than 10,000 users signing up from 163 countries that week, according to Monga. Everything you post stays within the group. The app is its own small world: a feed is the home screen, greeting users with updates since they last signed on; messaging capabilities include threads to help corral conversations. Photos, videos, and links are shared in a “vault” that all members can access. 

“We don’t track time spent, which is a pretty common goal to optimize for,” Cornell said. “We don’t care about that. The whole point is that you should be able to check in and want to connect with it. I want them [users] to have the warm fuzzy feeling, versus the crippling anxiety of logging on to Twitter.”

Conor Muirhead, a software developer based in Washington state, first heard about Cocoon through a group chat at his workplace, and it piqued his interest. He is morally opposed to using Facebook products because of its data practices (although he begrudgingly uses WhatsApp as a way to keep in touch with his family, which includes his dad Jim, who lives in Canada). He and his wife also recently took in a foster daughter and wanted a safe place to share pictures with the wider family. “We wouldn’t share photos and videos [otherwise],” he says. “We totally want our family to see the cute things she’s doing.”

He was hesitant to download yet another app but was intrigued by Cocoon’s promise that it wouldn’t sell his private information to a third party. While it is free for now, Monga and Cornell say they eventually intend to monetize the app by selling subscriptions, not ads.

“They seemed to be making the pitch that they wanted this to be a private, protected, secure place,” says Muirhead. 

That privacy is what Jasmine and Joan were able to negotiate when she was at Stanford and now at Oxford. With the app, Jasmine is able to share her location by city instead of GPS coordinates.

“I think it brings us closer together [to not share exact location],” Jasmine says. “It feels more equal.”

Kate Eichhorn, an associate professor of culture and media at the New School and author of The End of Forgetting: Growing Up With Social Media, has a name for this second wave of post-Facebook social media: micro-networks.

To Eichhorn, it’s only natural that the past decade’s data missteps have created a desire for smaller, better-defined networks. In fact, young people already create their own version of this using current social-media apps.

“Tweens and teens are very aware of reputation management,” she says. “They already are creating micro-communities on Facebook and Instagram. They’re looking for other places to do that.”

How the subscription-supported business structure is received could be key to the success of apps like Cocoon. Eichhorn said she’d be interested to see how that plays out after almost two decades of free social media accessible to anyone willing to hand over personal data. People aren’t used to paying.

“Are people concerned enough about privacy to actually let go of the idea that these platforms should be free?” she says. “Will they subscribe to gain their privacy back?”

The other big question is: Does it work? Does using an app actually make you feel closer to your family?

Anecdotally, both families I spoke to have noticed that the type of content posted on the app is more open and honest than the stuff posted to Instagram or Facebook. 

Jasmine, for example, noted that she could post a hasty, even not-so-clear shot and feel fine about uploading it in a way she wouldn’t with Instagram. “There are norms [on Instagram],” she tells me, saying she uses a “finsta” (a fake Instagram account) sometimes for closer friends.

“Trust breeds authenticity,” says Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert. “It’s much easier to share the less curated parts of our lives when we feel accepted for who we really are and are less fearful of perceived judgment or rejection.”

Cocoon is a new app with a fairly small set of users, and that means bugs. The messaging isn’t always smooth, either: chat defaults to photos over text, which made it annoying to use for the Muirhead family during dad Jim’s recent medical emergency. The family got so frustrated and annoyed by the double-tapping that they just switched over to WhatsApp.

Still, such micro-networks and the control they offer might redefine how we think about and use social media in the next decade, whether it is Cocoon or another app that follows in its wake.

“In the tech world, people crash and burn quickly, but the idea of these controlled micro-communities is something that will persist,” Eichhorn says.

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