Possibility-as-a-Service: SuperBad, the Inciting Incident & Spontaneous Social Apps

We watched Booksmart the other night, which is basically the female Superbad (even has Jonah Hill’s sister as the star). Two goodie two-shoes girls decide they want to have a high school party experience before they graduate and they decide to attend a graduation party, but end up on a boat where a classmate spikes their drink with shrooms, a houseparty where a teacher sleeps with a student, one’s crush makes out with the other’s crush and a yelling fight ensues where they learn about friendship, freedom and their futures and learn to value their not-as-studious classmates as interesting and valuable people in their own right.

Think about every teen comedy. It’s Evan, Seth and McLovin in Superbad going on an adventure to try to deliver alcohol to a party, getting waylaid by factors out of their control that cause an epic night to unfold where they learn about themselves and their friendship.

Fuck it, every movie period — it’s Will only gaining the strength to fight for Elizabeth’s love in Pirates of the Caribbean after fighting to save her life against zombie pirates. Or Luke only gaining the nerve to be who he is destined to be after his aunt and uncle are killed by Stormtroopers.

The Inciting Incident

It’s literally called the Inciting Incident in script writing — “the major change or formative event that ignites the protagonist’s connection with the antagonist.”

It made me realize the ultimate rebuttal to all this “will people ever go out again/will we just virtual reality/zoom call into arranged meetings” navel-gazing-VC-talk that I hear is that, to grossly oversimplify things . . .

We are in constant search of our own life’s inciting incidents.

We are a stunningly un self-aware and scared species — we are in constant search of and in need of external events to happen to us to force a reevaluation, learning, progress, to form an identity about ourselves and who we are. Stories have a deceivingly large value in our sense of self, and we’re always hoping to create more of them.

Possibility IS the Product

The product of “going out” or “meeting up in person” is not the actual product that a party, an in-person event, a trip to the bar is selling you. It’s the hope that in going out, SOMETHING will happen.

It’s possibility.

What if the premise of Superbad was instead “Evan and Seth jump on a Facetime call and confront their emotions by talking about how they are going to feel going away to college.” Well that would just require a shocking amount of self-awareness and maturity wouldn’t it . . . and while movies don’t always reflect reality, the fact that this is one of the few instances in which they do — external events matter. Stories matter. Possibility is exciting. The unknown is exciting. And hope of creating stories that drive our identity drives a disproportionate amount of our behavior that I don’t think silicon valley fully appreciates.

The most transformative moments in our life, the stories we love to tell, are things that often happen serendipitously and are at least somewhat out of our control — something that apps will never be able to duplicate.

Clubhouse & Spontaneous Social Apps

There is a whole wave of social apps now popping up that claim to duplicate some sort of in-person social interaction. The most popular is one called Clubhouse that apparently (because it’s suuuuuuper exclusive and I’m not cool enough to get an invite) tries to mimic a house party, being able to jump in and out of conversations in a more natural way. There are a few more examples in the below article of people trying to recreate real parties and events so you can explore virtual worlds that more closely mimic real life social situations.

I bet that most of the founders of these companies probably agree with what I’m saying — that these won’t be a replacement for the thing that drives us to connect in person, but these are simply good enhancements, same as phone calls or texts help us communicate better but don’t replace meeting up. I’m not anti-phone calls or texts anymore than I am anti-any of these apps.

Just anti-Thoughtbois (thanks to Ryan Dawidjan and his friends for coining that amazing term) who think these will replace IRL when I hear talk about how we’ll all just go online. How we’ll rove around virtual events and they’ll be a real replacement for in-person events. How bars and restaurants are dead.

I don’t believe it for a second. When you think about it, most nightlife is already pretty miserable, rarely worth the bar tab and hangovers.

On the surface, staying home, jumping on a zoom call with close friends, should have been winning a long time ago.

But it’s not, we were out on some gut level on the hope of finding our life’s defining inciting incidents. Because humans have a desire to create stories, the unknown is an important participant in our social lives.

Silicon Valley: Logic vs. Emotion

I was reading this great write-up by Eugene Wei about Status-as-a-Service — basically an overview of how various social networks like twitter incentivize you to engage and share based on social capital, small boosts to your ego, likes, streaks and more. It’s worth a read, but I thought this paragraph on Google’s inability to create a social network with Google+ was particularly insightful for this discussion though.

Google is often spoken of as a company where software engineers have the most power. Engineers, in my experience, are driven by logic, and status-centered products are distasteful or mysterious to them, often both.

I think that sometimes silicon valley has trouble understanding this sense of hope and possibility of what “could” happen — perhaps because we were never the most popular kids in the class. Products that are based on status, emotion, excitement, drama, social capital, external validation, popularity have emotional drivers at their core, and can be hard to nail with logical explanations, but one way of thinking about it is that . . .

Stories Have A Deceivingly High Expected Return

One way to think about this with an engineer’s mindset is that we just have our expected return payoff all wrong.

Go Out = F(Chances of Amazing Night X Emotional Payoff of Amazing of Night)

It doesn’t make sense why we dress up, go to a party, pay for all those drinks, get that hangover for what on average is an underwhelming, uncomfortable and unremarkable night 99 out of every 100 times. I believe we’re either . . .

1) Underestimating the emotional payoff that even the 99 underwhelming experiences give us. Perhaps the mediocre conversation, a quick 10 minute catchup with a friend, or even just the process of “getting ready” and “having something to look forward to” has a bigger effect on our emotional well being than we realized. i.e. there might be a low chance of an amazing night but a 50% chance of a mediocre night and the mediocre night actually isn’t as bad as we think it is on the surface.

2) That 1 remarkable night is so key to our lives, it creates the stories we tell our friends, our children, that serve as the fodder for so many other conversations, our self-esteem and self-image and confidence, that it’s truly worth it, even if it happens so rarely.

Evolution & Mutation

I don’t think we’ll move everything online, but if we did I think we’d also miss out on a key part of our own self-growth. The thing that caused Evan and Seth to learn about themselves was unknown variables being introduced into their lives — it’s like Evolution — you only evolve when you introduce a mutation.

I feel like many VCs and Entrepreneurs can’t grasp something that if it was a product would have a ridiculously low NPS rate, is such a core part of what we desire as humans to drive a behaviors that might not “make sense.”

But it’s because they misunderstand the product — the product isn’t going out, it isn’t the in-person interactions, the product is the possibility, of inciting incidents that create stories.


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Founder & CEO of Maxwell Social

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