MySpace, Facebook, TikTok and now Threads. Society is all-too familiar with the ebb and flow of social media apps created to hook mass audiences, but tech entrepreneurs and app co-founders Emily Yuan and Nico Laqua are creating—not cloning—with their new platform for authentic online interaction.
Mirroring existing social structures, Picnic focuses on the natural development of culture through shared interests and societal niches. Users join "circles" that pertain to their favorite TV shows, musical acts, movies and more, then share news and content, mostly in the form of fan-art and other images, about that subject with their circle peers.
We caught up with Yuan and Laqua to hear more about the new social media app they hope will revolutionize and revitalize online communities, starting with Gen Z.
What were you doing prior to the creation of Picnic?
Yuan: Nico was working on some semblance of a social media app for online communities and sent it along to me to test at Stanford for user feedback. At that point, it was a project. I got more involved, and we shaped the mission into what it is today. I dropped out my junior year at Stanford to work on Picnic full time.
Laqua: My background was originally in computational biology, and from there, I did some work in AI, but I decided moving into the consumer space would be really interesting. I spent my whole childhood on interest-based forums. That vision of the internet as a place where people can come and gather to discuss topics they care about really speaks to me, and making this generation’s version of those internet forums so near-and-dear to my heart is a fascinating start. I started with that full-time about three years ago, but for the first year or so, it wasn’t that serious. When Emily dropped out of school to join full-time, things started to pick up.
There are hundreds of thousands of apps available for download, with the most popular being well-known social media apps. What differentiates Picnic from the crowd; its function or its users?
Laqua: It’s a little bit of both. I think human behavior doesn’t really change that much. Even before the internet, people would gather in groups and talk about topics that interest them, but if you talk to a teenager today and tell them to check out internet forums, they aren’t going to be that interested. There is an opening in the market for Picnic. In general, what sets our products apart and the hallmark of a product we work with is that it’s used by a Gen Z audience, exists within a larger ecosystem where there is a lot of energy and youthfulness, and is very intuitive and easy to use with the goal being something that is well-established in human behavior. What we are about is entertaining people, and if we want to entertain people, then the best way to do that is to take an existing human behavior and digitize it better than it’s been digitized before.
What is unique about Gen Z’s social media use? How does this generation approach it differently, and how does Picnic support this behavior?
Laqua: Gen Z is really interesting because, especially post-Covid, there have been some major changes in the way people socialize. I don’t think there has ever been a generation with this much exposure to technology with the ability to communicate instantly. You start with the most digital generation there has ever been, and you combine that with the fact that for basically two years, a huge portion of young people only existed in an online world. You get some really interesting behavioral patterns.
Yuan: I think people are looking for a more authentic social experience that isn’t just a highlight reel or pure videos. They are looking for a way to connect about stuff that they like, and we haven’t seen a good place for them to do that. That is why we see so much usage and growth at Picnic without marketing. It's something that is missing for this generation of young people.
What is a Picnic “circle” and how does it function as an authentic online community rather than an online forum?
Yuan: Everything on Picnic is posted to a circle, which is a user-created community. Each circle has a post-feed as well as a live 24/7 chat where people can talk about the stuff that they like. Right now, we have 70,000 or 80,000 user-created circles in a variety of sizes.
Laqua: The thing about Picnic is that it’s a place for people to engage with topics that they care about, as opposed to a place to look at real-life friends’ selfies and vacation pictures. Our vision of Picnic is whatever the niche is, whether it’s discussing the latest tv show that came out or nail art or an animation style. Picnic is the framework for these user-created communities to pop up, but what exactly the communities look like culturally is up to the people that run them.
Fostering a positive community is at the forefront of Picnic’s mission. Other social media platforms have received backlash from a lack of control and supervision over content that promotes negative behavior toward others. What is your plan for preventing harmful messages that may arise in Picnic circles?
Yuan: We have two layers of moderation. We have platform-wide moderation, a team of moderators that are on 24/7, making sure the content is safe and good for all the users, as well as on a community basis, as each community has its own appointed moderation team. We see some of these communities taking moderation shifts to keep things safe. What might be appropriate in one community might not be appropriate in another one, so having that nuance and giving these communities the power to shape their community how they see fit really allows them to develop their own culture.
Are there rules or exceptions for users looking to join the Picnic community? Does the design limit users to an age group, or can anyone download and join the Circles?
Laqua: Anyone can download and join a circle, and all circles are public by default. In the future, we might experiment with enabling private group chat direction, but at the moment, we are focused on our core experience, which is on publicly accessible, bigger community group settings centered around an interest.
Can brands or companies create pages for themselves to advertise products on the app?
Yuan: Anyone can create an account and a circle, so that is something that we will be encouraging more of as we grow larger. Right now, the communities are topic and interest-based, but of course there are brands that might be interested in and associated with certain communities.
Laqua: A direction that might be really interesting is for brands to make their own community circles, because having organic Q&A and the ability to engage with figures central to brands is a much more personal and intimate experience than seeing an ad in your feed.
Is there a form of incentive or funding for popular users on the app?
Laqua: In the past, we had a community incubation fund that helped us to grow. Something we intend to do once we start to make revenue from Picnic is to share some of the revenue generated from advertisers and other sources directly with the communities that generate them. What we hope to do with online groups, communities and topic-based interest pages is something similar to what Youtube has done to videos.
Does this integration of advertisement and brands disrupt the app’s attempt to mimic authentic social structure?
Laqua: I think it will enhance the circles, and there are a couple of examples online of the ecosystem exiting this way. Youtube works really nicely with brands and advertisers, because as a platform, it gives users the ability to opt in or out of running ads on their videos, sharing some of their revenue with the person that uploads the video. That creates an interesting dynamic where better content is posted because of the support of advertisers. If we can create a similar dynamic on a community-to-community basis while allowing people to receive a better consumer service for whatever products they may be purchasing, I think both of those will enhance the online experience. Participation from the brands in that discussion will only be positive.
Picnic’s content continues to grow based on the popularity and creation of other social trends that may result in the formation of communities. Is Picnic’s ability to grow tied down by its reliance on current trends and passions, or do you believe it will have the capacity to create trends, or is it purely for discussion of preexisting trends?
I think that a lot of culture going forward will increasingly come from Picnic, and that’s because wherever you have a small group of people that are passionate about particular topics, there are a lot of interesting discoveries and innovations that come from that group. I don’t see a reason why our users who are extremely creative and passionate wouldn’t be the trendsetters going forward, especially as our user count expands and increases.
Photography by: Courtesy of Picnic