The 10 most innovative social media companies of 2021

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These top players in the social realm—including Epic Games, Reddit, OnlyFans, and more—are bringing us together in constructive and innovative ways.

Social media is a fraught business. At best, companies such as Facebook help us to stay in touch, share ideas, and even make a living. At worst, they are rentiers of human emotion, manipulating our basest needs to bombard us with ads. But amid necessary debates over hate speech and data harvesting, echo chambers and addiction, a new class of social media companies is emerging: one that looks beyond the old, extractive models to imagine another set of possibilities. Herewith, 10 upstarts that have delighted us, surprised us, and proved there’s still space for innovation in the social media universe.

1. EPIC GAMES

For challenging Big Tech hegemony—and possessing a vision to build something better

The future of social media may not be in traditional platforms, but in immersive gaming environments with their own economies, currencies, and culture. Fortnite, the popular battle royale shooter by Epic Games, is striving to become the first digital metaverse: a shared virtual space that goes beyond gaming to include an endless buffet of media experiences. CEO Tim Sweeney has been actively promoting the metaverse concept, and even if it’s years away, one can begin to discern the contours of his vision, with Fortnite hosting in-game concerts, movie trailer premiers, and other appointment viewing events over the past year. Sweeney has grown more ambitious on the business side, too. In August, Epic sued Apple over the tech company’s restrictions on in-app purchases—the first broadside in what may be a larger battle for sovereignty alongside the Big Four in Silicon Valley.

2. HINGE

For being the rare dating app to graduate users off its platform—and mastering the behavioral science to make it happen

Hinge, one of the world’s fastest-growing dating apps, says it’s laser focused on getting people off its platform and into meaningful relationships, using the results of its in-house behavioral research lab to help users break the cycle of swipe-right addiction that defines many of its rivals. Of course, a dating app faces obvious challenges during a pandemic, so Hinge made several big changes early in the coronavirus crisis to stay relevant, ultimately building out a new video option to facilitate virtual dates. The feature was so popular that Hinge decided to roll it out globally—and make it permanent. According to the company’s latest surveys, 66% of users continued talking after their first video chat, and 55% of LGBTQ+ users said using the app had been helpful with fighting feelings of loneliness or isolation during the pandemic.

3. PEX

For designing an AI-fueled infrastructure that makes sure digital content creators reap appropriate royalties 

From its inception, the internet has been a battleground over intellectual property. Memes, remixes, and dance videos are the lifeblood of a digital culture that lives in fear of a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice. But original content creators need to eat, too. Pex plays the mediator by using AI to scan the web for rights-holders’ content, allowing them to negotiate licensing with platforms. The royalty attribution startup earns money by coordinating these deals, but its underlying mission is more expansive: to establish a market for a largely unregulated strata of the internet economy. In 2020, it leveled up its Attribution Engine with the acquisition of Dubset, a music tech startup that has fingerprinted more than 45 million tracks.

4. REDDIT

For banning toxic content, promoting diversity, and growing powerful new communities (hello, r/WallStreetBets)

While other social platforms struggled with hate speech and misinformation, Reddit took a far stronger position on content moderation, aggressively banning thousands of subreddits that violated new policies designed to create a less toxic environment. Part of the cleanup is a money grab, a way to make the popular message board more appealing to advertisers. (Reddit recently revealed for the first time that it had reached 52 million daily active users, a sizable jump from 2019.) But it also reflects deeper and more profound shifts in Reddit’s corporate culture. In June, cofounder Alexis Ohanian resigned from Reddit’s board to make way for a Black candidate (Y Combinator’s Michael Seibel) and pledged to donate a portion of his future stock gains to promote racial equality, creating a model for the kind of organization that Reddit might strive to be. In December, Reddit acquired Dubsmash, a TikTok rival that’s popular with Black and Latinx content creators, as part of its efforts to reach more diverse communities. To be determined: whether Reddit can harness the incredible power of groups like WallStreetBets for something productive.

5. GOODPODS

For making podcast discovery a community affair

As the number of podcasts explodes, Goodpods is building a social network to help users find which are actually worth listening to. User growth rose 120% between June and July, and more than 400% between July and August, thanks in part to organic celebrity endorsements from the likes of Kim Kardashian and Patton Oswalt. But the real innovation is in the recommendation engine, which has been carefully designed to avoid the ideological echo chambers that plague other social platforms. The team behind Goodpods has made a point to elevate marginalized voices by stepping aside and allowing podcast discovery to be driven by users, not editors, while also surfacing podcasts that are popular outside of their personalized feed.

6. MOVERS+SHAKERS

For cracking TikTok’s virality code and unlocking massive ROI for its clients

While other marketing studios are scrambling to figure out TikTok, niche agency Movers + Shakers has struck gold on the new social platform by managing to create viral moments (hashtag challenges, dance trends, original music) that don’t feel inauthentic. It’s a hard trick to pull off, especially before a Gen Z audience that is highly attuned to pandering. Cofounders Evan Horowitz and Geoffrey Goldberg (a Harvard MBA and Broadway performer, respectively) first gained industry attention with their record breaking “Eyes, Lips, Face” campaign for e.l.f. cosmetics, which racked up billions of impressions on TikTok. In 2020, they followed on that success with the #ScoobDance challenge for Warner Bros, enlisting viral dance star Jalaiah Harmon as a choreographer, creating their own original music, then paying TikTok influencers to promote the hashtag. In just one week, it had 2.1 billion global views.

7. PATREON

For helping creators get through the pandemic

Patreon, already a lifeline for the creative economy, became even more essential amid the pandemic, helping thousands of creators—chefs, comedians, musicians—to make money and fund projects while they were cut off from traditional sources of revenue. In March, the company debuted its Creator Accelerator program to help mid-tier creators build sustainable businesses, selecting an inaugural class that was 66% female and 33% people of color. But most of the growth on the platform has been organic. In the months after COVID-19 hit the U.S. economy, Patreon added more than 100,000 new creators, and podcast launches more than tripled. On the subscriber side, Patreon reported 35% month-over-month growth in the number of new patrons paying for the first time ever on the platform.

8. YUBO

For building an influencer-free social network that upsells users instead of selling user data

You’ve probably never heard of Yubo, and maybe that’s by design. The French social app has built a devoted following by catering to Gen Z and rejecting the sleazy tactics that have supercharged its rivals. There are no ads on Yubo and, more important, no influencers. Instead, users hopscotch between small video chatrooms where they’re encouraged to meet new friends, play games, and drop money on add-ons. Yubo has boomed in popularity during the pandemic, reaching 40 million users, and investors are taking notice. In November, the startup closed a $47.5 million Series C with plans to expand its U.S. footprint—and prove you needn’t launder data to make real money.

9. ONLYFANS

For evolving beyond adult content and establishing a new beachhead in the creator economy

OnlyFans’ scale and cultural relevance have exploded during the pandemic, as homebound millions seek new ways to earn money and new forms of digital entertainment. That’s due in part to the influx of trainers, gamers, and celebrities such as Cardi B who have joined adult models in finding creative ways to sell intimacy during a time of social distancing. But it’s also a clever hack of the social sphere to monetize exclusive content. Creators use free social platforms to lure followers to OnlyFans, then level up with subscription tiers and tips (direct messaging can cost extra). The London-based company has claimed to be growing as fast as 500,000 users a day and pays out more than $200 million a month to its creators. With a 20% cut of every transaction, OnlyFans is profitable, too.

10. D’AMELIO FAMILY ENTERPRISES

For reinventing the Kardashian playbook for the TikTok era

The “first family” of TikTok has its sights set on becoming the new Kardashians —and they just might pull it off. To outsiders, the sudden emergence of Charli D’Amelio as a bonafide celebrity recalls the mystifying ascension of Kim Kardashian from D-list curiosity to pop culture icon. D’Amelio’s rise from obscurity, however, has been positively dizzying. It was only in the summer of 2019 that the Connecticut teen posted her first TikTok confection. Since then, she has gained nearly 100 million followers on TikTok, joined a content house, signed with United Talent Agency (UTA), partnered with Procter & Gamble, appeared in a Super Bowl commercial, and co-branded with Dunkin. Other members of the family have become unlikely celebrities, too—Charli’s mom, Heidi, and dad, Marc, each have nearly 10 million TikTok followers of their own. Charli’s sister, Dixie, has more than 75 million followers across social media, and her first single, “Be Happy,” has been streamed more than 200 million times since it debuted last summer and the official video has more than 100 million YouTube views. A reality show is in the works, as are books and podcasts. In October, Greg Goodfried departed as co-head of UTA’s digital talent division to lead D’Amelio Family Enterprises, a next step toward turning the mom-and-pop influencer shop into an omnichannel entertainment empire.

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