Single User Utility In A Social System

The first web 2 style social network we invested in at USV was delicious. We learned a lot from that one even though it was a short investment for us.I still wonder what might have been. But that’s not the subject of this post.

One of the most important lessons we took from delicious was the value of single user utility in social systems. It might seem odd that systems designed to leverage interactions between people can have (should have?) single person utility. But I strongly believe they should.

The first users of delicious were barely aware of and rarely used its social aspects. They just wanted to store their bookmarks in the cloud instead of in their browser. And they liked the tag based classification system. And they liked being able to use their links from any device. That was the single person utility delicious was built on.

But because bookmarks were public by default which resulted in most links being shared with others, a large social system developed. The delicious popular page was an important web destination in its day and most of those visitors never posted a link to delicious. They consumed others’ links.

I was reminded of delicious this week as I used foursquare to plan out a bunch of single day itineraries for our family visit to Tokyo. I use foursquare to do this because it works great on all of our phones, the lists automatically geosort depending on where we are, and because the map view of lists makes a great walking map of a neighborhood or city. This is all single user utility for me (or small group utility for our family).

I was surprised to see folks saving these lists to their foursquare accounts. I can understand why someone might want to save a “best of Tokyo” list but saving our day’s itinerary wasn’t an obvious move to me.

I put together my best of lists on foursquare specifically for others. I put these single day itineraries specifically for me and my family. But big open data rich social platforms are interesting places. One man’s single person utility is another man’s social value.

And, as I have said before, network effects help on the way up and hurt on the way down. If I get great single person utility from your service, it is less likely that I will follow my friends out of it when your service ends its stay on the hype cycle and the iTunes leaderboard.

So I encourage the product teams in our portfolio to think hard about building single person utility into their products. Its a paradox of sorts but by making sure its useful to just one person you are insuring its useful to tens of millions of people.


Comments (Archived):

  1. William Mougayar

    But in the Foursquare example, isn’t Saving a List a 2nd order Utility? The first one being the checkin itself which also has propagation value.Β So, there can be several single person utilities, each building on others, Β no?Β 

    1. JimHirshfield

      Agreed, but utility can be plural and encompass many features.

    2. fredwilson

      a lot of folks use foursquare without checking in. i suspect a lof of them might get value out of lists.

      1. William Mougayar

        True. I didn’t think of it that way. It’s like those early Twitter users that used it to search and discover before they tweeted.

  2. kirklove

    Believe in this 1,000%. It should be your primary focus. Dare I say over a strong mobile presence. The user has to feel something even without any social interaction. Absolutely critical.

  3. JimHirshfield

    I write this comment for my own utility…so that I can better follow the forthcoming conversation. Gonna star it too, ’cause that utility will ensure it’s in my morning Disqus Digest. Enjoying the conversations around here – that’s utility. ‘Nuf said.

    1. fredwilson


  4. Jeff Janer

    Seems that single user utility in a social system is truly a paradox if there’s confusion in the mind of the user as to the primary purpose of the service…i.e.,, is it for my benefit or to benefit others.

  5. andyswan

    Really excellent topic. I’d never REALLY thought of it that way….but that’s what we did with mytrade.It started out more of a “trade journal” that eventually became social and awesome. I admit it wasn’t a genius premeditated plan… we just tried to build stuff our user would want and then LISTENED on how to make it better and EXPANDED on the cool ways people used it that we hadn’t expected.Single-user utility. Love it. Need to figure out how to do this for Voomly….it’s not obvious to me. Then again I haven’t pondered it over pappy yet….

    1. fredwilson

      a lot of pappy in your instagram feed this week!!!

      1. andyswan

        tis the season. #pappyholidays

      2. Donna Brewington White

        and a LOT of likes

    2. Aaron Klein

      I can already see that in Voomly.The strongest benefit is the transaction, and of course that requires two people.But it seems to me that the single user utility is the signal of expertise that it sends to the world.In other words, if I’m good enough at X that I’m “obviously” being paid by one or more people to share that expertise, that’s a highly effective signal that provides value to me in a number of other ways.

    3. Donna Brewington White

      cause you drank it all

      1. andyswan

        Now that would be a rookie move!

  6. takingpitches

    Chris Dixon had a post about this a couple of years ago. Worth looking at. I’ll quote the meat of it:…”Many products that we think of as strictly multiplayer also have single player modes. In many cases this single player mode helped adoption in the early stages when the network effects were not yet strong. For example, you could use Flickr just to store photos privately if you wanted to. I thought of Foursquare as strictly multiplayer until myHunch cofounder Tom Pinckney told me he uses it solely to keep track of restaurants he’s gone to so he’ll remember which ones to go back to. For some products it’s really hard to imagine single player modes. This is true of pure communication products like Skype and perhaps also social networks like Facebook (although apps like games seem to have provided single player modes for Facebook).”

    1. andyswan

      I still think of flickr as storage-with-benefits. Great find.

      1. tericee

        Me too!

      2. Aaron Klein

        I’m wondering why “Photo Storage with Benefits” isn’t the headline on their landing page.You write good marketing copy, Swan. πŸ˜‰

        1. fredwilson

          And the anchor images on swan’s blog are world class. He could be a media mogul if he wanted to be.

          1. takingpitches

            Just looked at the blog, Andy. Fantastic posts and images!

          2. Geoff

            me too!

          3. Donna Brewington White


          4. jason wright

            one is O. Winston Link.another has the eye of Mary Ellen Mark.the others? answers on a disqus the creator.

    2. fredwilson

      yes, and i bet i’ve written about this before too. i was reminded of it this week and felt strongly that its still not well understood.

      1. chris dixon

        Yeah I think Fred had a post about this way back (before me) but I’m having trouble googling it.



  7. Dasher

    Yes, single user utility solves the chicken and egg problem of having a critical mass before something gets to be useful.

  8. awaldstein

    It’s all about me. And the more it is, the more i will use it and the more interesting and useful it will be to you.People (me/you/we) are so wondrous and wacky.

    1. fredwilson


    2. William Mougayar

      Ah, so you went from “being difficult” yesterday, to wondrous and wacky today πŸ™‚ +10

      1. fredwilson

        Nothing that a great workout won’t fix

        1. William Mougayar

          And in Arnold’s case, followed by a fine artisanal wine that no one has heard of.

        2. Mark Essel

          agreed, I was also in a foul mood yesterday. fixed with a couple hours at the gym

    3. Aaron Klein

      It’s interesting to me how important it is to market the single user utility.Foursquare has just never clicked with me, largely because I’ve gotten very little value out of checking in. Once in a while I get a coupon or discount. The app just got moved back to page three on my phone as a result.Points haven’t worked. My friends who play for points check in at every gas station they go to. I just can’t get into that. And I can’t remember to check in consistently, so the points game ends up frustrating me.If it was front and center – “build a great list of places to go when you’re traveling” – that might have resonated. I may need to try that out. I didn’t even know it existed in the app.

      1. awaldstein

        This post is like great movie I needed to watch again. I can never get this truth pounded home enough.Not always obvious or intuitive from a design perspective to me.The more you empower the individual to see everything through their eyes, the stronger the community structure often becomes.

        1. panterosa,

          Arnold, I am sewing together a new thesis, which I apply here to your point of seeing things through others’ eyes – we need to learn how we see to then move onto what we see, to then connect what and how into a feedback loop where we recognize how we are learning, based on how and what we are seeing.I am applying your version of “perspective of user” to my theory of visual education. I see network effects in learning how we learn, which speaks to fredwilson’s point. Wonder if you see it working.

          1. awaldstein

            Fascinting…can you give me a tangible example of how you seeing this playing out?

          2. panterosa,

            I am focused in on it in my work.In my app and games I am teaching a new system, complimentary ways to see nature. Those ways then start new thinking, create a new organizational system for thinking which involves concepts, and many concepts play out visually, like in patterns. The how and what start building a network of facts which then build up easily because the patterns and trends scale fast – nature is built thematically, new data expands and enriches the network of facts, thereby expanding the users’ thinking and data points into trends and connecting back their own seeing at ever higher connection points. They can see themselves learn.Does that answer your question?

          3. awaldstein

            Sort of….”seeing ourselves learn” sounds like scifi. If you can bottle this up, many will drink it as long as the learning is desirable.

          4. panterosa,

            We are patenting the platform because it has so many applications. It simplifies many very complex systems, all screaming for help.

          5. Matt A. Myers

            That seems to be the only way to try to protect yourself so you have the time needed.

          6. Matt A. Myers

            I believe Duolingo takes the similar approach with language learning. It’s progress tracking, being able to check and gauge where you’re at – how you got there – maybe what alternate route you needed to take at some point, etc..

          7. Matt A. Myers

            By how we see, do you mean physically taking in / absorbing information? This would include using good design principles then, and then of course requiring a base interest to draw initial attention / focus – which then in itself creates a context; When you see / access a piece of information without being properly primed it either a) doesn’t make sense, or b) isn’t interesting (it doesn’t draw your interest); If you’re forced to learn something that doesn’t make sense, then there’s a process of understanding / discovering / researching the parts until you can understand – of finding the foundational pieces of information, in a way that you need to help you absorb it.Finding the right information at the right time is all that is actually helpful. And so the best that can be done is helping people find that information as fluidly as possible – give them different methods that make sense to accessing it. For entertainment purposes, sites like Reddit or even contextual communities will allow you to skim and see the ‘right information’ at the right time – and that feels like reward. Places like Reddit allow people who are bored and just taking in everything, to scientists who want to discuss about whatever topic – and they do so because their mind is primed for it, it’s good practice and feels good to use your mind – you feel useful, needed, connected through expression.There are different types / styles / avenues of learning, too. There’s the leading edge of discussion, theory building, etc.. and then there’s the foundational learning – the base that’s required for whatever is above it. The discovery and introduction of such (priming) is intertwined with the actual learning. We learn through connection, and the more connections something has, the more it connects back to and so is remembered further / deeper (more pathways, more influence on pathways and thinking). This is why it’s easier to get things done all at once, or focus on something for a long time if you’re really looking for the nuances of it – those nuanced pathways will build as the obvious get hammered in (and boring) and the nuanced pieces then can show themselves. Likewise, doing something immediately when it’s on your mind is easiest – though still fighting boredom more and more at all times (information is less new the longer you sit with it, therefore less and less exciting) — it’s easiest because that information is primed, it creates that context, whether it is simple or more complex or a holistic / bigger picture thing.The issue I have is I’m interested in a lot, so it takes longer to absorb all that I am interested in, though I learn the pieces and focus on the parts that I need to until I’ve learned up until a point I am satisfied; Self-testing if you will, being confident with my own level of understanding. And then I move onto the next priority of what or where I need to learn, of what I need to study. The extra time it takes I hope is counteracted by an advantage of depth of understanding and clarity and direction I have for what I am doing.And I think this is where we fail out in our industrialized education systems, whereby we don’t give people the time needed to experience the world and the breadth of knowledge needed to evolve into much more capable people at earlier ages.

          8. panterosa,

            Matt, I’m a little overwhelmed by your response and was not sure how to reply to the many topics you raise. I am a visual person, perhaps thoroughly enough that I talk about it less than I used. I am not given to a lot of semantics and discussion – I like to get on with the business of seeing and doing according to seeing. I will agree that good design, the very best kind, takes into account all your concerns. I hope to achieve that level of design with my work. It releases in beta soon so I will have feedback shortly.

          9. Matt A. Myers

            Cool. πŸ™‚ I certainly like to followup my theory with physical / visual design, I find it acts like the solution to a mathematical equation – gives me some confirmation and comfort.

      2. fredwilson

        That is one of their problems. They have hidden many of the best features. I was emailing with the product team about this yesterday

        1. Geoff

          Always mystifies me why they don’t award points for adding photographs of places.

          1. Donna Brewington White

            Or for adding new places.

          2. Geoff

            Very good point Donna, totally agree

          3. fredwilson

            oh god. i have suggested that a dozen times if i have suggested it once.

      3. JamesHRH

        I am with Aaron – I keep trying 4square & not caring.

        1. William Mougayar

          We connected over a hockey ring in Sarnia, a sailing race in Halifax & cloud porn pics somewhere- and that was meaningless πŸ™‚ ?

          1. JamesHRH

            Used Instagram for all of those.

          2. William Mougayar

            But I saw them & responded on Foursquare. They were pushed there too. I would recommended the Foursquare Explore function and Lists.

          3. fredwilson

            instagram is a good general purpose version of foursquare. i use both actively and for me they have some important differences. but i have quite a few friends who use instagram to “check into” a place. it has lightweight utility in that regard whereas foursquare has heavyweight utility for the same thing. and i think instagram’s success has put a crimp in foursquare’s growth rate as a result. foursquare is still growing, but not as fast as it was before instagram blew up.

        2. Brandon G. Donnelly

          Same. I keep trying it to solve the “where do you want to eat?” problem, but it never seems to work out for me. And now I primarily use Path for check-ins (cross sharing to 4SQ and others). I have a 4SQ Google Calendar setup though, so I can look back on where I’ve been (esoteric, I know).

      4. Donna Brewington White

        Foursquare has taken on new life for me. It has gone from being a sort of diary to “Instagram with locations” to now a discovery tool. Adding social features has enhanced it greatly — at least for me. Also, something about travel is also being transformed in my thinking.

        1. Aaron Klein

          Very cool. I’d love to see them succeed.

          1. Donna Brewington White

            I still wonder if it needs to go more mainstream to be sustainable. As much as I don’t want the less discriminating experience that FB has become for me I could still stand to have more of my friends adopt it or use it more regularly.

        2. Steve Palmer

          There is too much work to do in order to gain the newly intended value from Foursquare.The value I previously gained was simply social endorsement. Now, Fred is using it like Path for itineraries, you, Donna, like the discovery aspect – which I am not feeling; discovery should not require research – which is an issue with 4sq, as well as Spindle.I like Fred’s comment about “another man’s social value”, which is where I see 4sq for me. Though I realize this post is not about 4sq, I agree with Aaron Klein. Still trying to figure out what 4sq is – I wish it would become blatantly obvious for everyone so I can enjoy single user utility – or not. Feeling stuck in the middle…

          1. Donna Brewington White

            There is also simple discovery. Like, I’m in this new area and looking for pizza. What are my options? Which are most popular or recommended? (This recently happened.) My complaint is that I happened upon this feature –it wasn’t readily apparent.I’ve also received really good unsolicited suggestions from the app that I’ve saved to my “places to try” list.But it still has not become mainstream. In some of my circles people don’t know what it is or don’t care. That’s more the “Facebook” crowd in my life.

          2. Steve Palmer

            Good point about simple discovery. Is there a Foursquare dilemma, maybe an identity crisis? Why aren’t we more aware of these features and what are they using instead?I would probably use Yelp or Google Maps for a pizza joint before thinking about 4sq. I will need to make an effort to try 4sq next time.

      5. Tyler Hayes

        The single user utility of Foursquare for me is that I get to see where my friends and family are. I just enjoy seeing them go fun and novel places and commenting when I can’t be there with them.I turn off notifications for (or don’t connect with) friends who use Foursquare obsessively to play for points. It’s noisy, distracting, and ruins the experience for me.This is one of the reasons I use Path too.

        1. Aaron Klein

          That’s an interesting point. I have zero family and very few friends on the product, so that might be an interesting thing to try as well.

    4. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

      I am hearing Amstrong’s “What a wonderful world” in your comment…literally. Good to see people in Amstrong’s mood.

      1. awaldstein


          1. awaldstein

            Duh….still early here. Thanks!

          2. Anne Libby

            Around here, it wouldn’t surprise me to have someone pipe in that “Neil” also applies.

          3. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

            thanx @annelibby:disquslast name first name mis-use by me.Yes. Louis Armstrong.@awaldstein:disqus I actually listened that song today 3-times because of you and thanx.

          4. Anne Libby

            My pleasure! It was great to hear the song today.

          5. Donna Brewington White

            Thanks, Anne. You bring such class to the joint.

          6. Anne Libby

            You always bring compliments.

      2. jason wright

        one for Lance to meditate to


      “It’s all about me.”.Yep, a move back to desktop systems with data stored in a shareable data store. So, if our local machines could be shared 24/7 like they were cloud resources why would we need remote data stores at all?

    6. facebookapi123

      Can’t agree more!

  9. LE

    One of the reasons network effects hurt on the way down is that people are aware of what others are doing and take social cues and proof from others behavior rightly or wrongly. If I no longer am exposed to foursquare (because it’s not being mentioned or used by my friends) it is no longer attractive or seems as important to me. If drops to 20 comments per day it seems less important to the remaining commenters. If there is no line at the restaurant or there are open tables at 7:00pm on a Saturday night it’s not as attractive (one of the reasons by the way that restaurants are willing to barter for meals it fills tables and even if they loose money the restaurants seems more desirable (as opposed to a packed airplane..)The network effect also (the popularity factor) also insures that you are repeatedly exposed to a brand name and that brand name becomes important to you and gains a halo. Then if that stops happening you have a reverse effect.

    1. ShanaC

      correct. It also is very difficult to seed behavior. You can’t just up and change what people do overnight unless you are rewarding them socially back.

  10. takingpitches

    The single user/multi-user framework is very helpful when thinking of network effects where you are a building a network or marketplace that has something to do with talent.In the talent world, suppliers naturally curate, bookmark, or have single-player mode actions that they rely on. For example, I have a number of models and examples that I have as a go-to file when a new matter comes up. Lawyers, bankers, doctors, engineers, etc. all have analogous actions.Now to move it online to create a network. The key may be providing a service that allows me to do something useful with this in stand-alone mode , but then also multiplies the value many times by allowing a community to grow up around the standalone action.One does this by allowing both sides of the marketplace to react, remix, or just use the standalone use as a resource. This multi-player mode us can create the community around the marketplace, resulting in greater sign up, stickiness, and participation on both the demand and supply side, increasing the reach and ultimately the power, utility, and efficiency of the marketplace network.Moreover, where the single-player mode is also a signal of quality in the marketplace, it can also serve as a signal to customers about the value of the supplier’s ability, while further incenting the supplier to participate actively on the network.



  11. Joel Marsh

    Hi Fred, nice post. It’s always interesting for me β€” someone who has designed and launched several social networks β€” to read about someone else discovering social mechanics.You are more correct about this than you may realize. In fact, single-user utility is necessary for a successful social network, not just a nice-to-have. Often though, that utility is a happy accident by designers that were aiming at something else.Optimal single-user actions have two ingredients, which β€” when multiplied by the whole network β€” result in “viral” effects:1) A single user’s actions should be part of a feedback loop. You might be familiar with this. These loops follow the pattern of: motivation > action > feedback > motivation. For example, you want to brag about your sexy outfit (as you do), so you post a pic on Facebook, people like it, and therefore you want to do it again next weekend.But if that is all they accomplish you only make one person happy.2) The second ingredient involves more of what you’re discussing: the action you take should create small-world connections within the community. This is where features like “popular” pages and “followers” originated from. They create short pathways between otherwise distantly-connected people in the network.In a properly-built social network, actions not only create feedback for the user, but create actionable content for others, in their own feedback loops.Once started, this is an endless machine that allows Foursquare to perpetuate something you did, purely for your own individual purposes.You shouldn’t just encourage this in your social portfolio companies… you should create, measure, and optimize it at every turn.

    1. fredwilson

      Great comment Joel!

    2. awaldstein

      You’re top couple that are done right in your opinion that demonstrate this would be interesting..

    3. kirklove

      Super points, Joel

    4. lisa hickey

      Love it when I sort of kind of get something intuitively, but then someone like you articulates it so eloquently. Your whole comment, really, but this, especially. –>> “The action you take should create small-world connections within the community.” Thanks Joel!



      1. Matt A. Myers

        I miss the BBS days – they were so much simpler..

    6. Donna Brewington White

      Social mechanics. That’s a helpful term. Do you know if these are catalogued somewhere — like social mechanics best practices?If game mechanics have value well beyond games, the pervasive application of social mechanics beyond social networks would be even more so. Great comment.

      1. awaldstein

        I like this term as well.And I”m sure there are lists as there are lists for everything ;)I would wager that the mystery though is less in the mechanics and more in finding behaviors are are shareable. The web is littered with social nets perfectly made that don’t capture a lasting dynamics that is vertically shareable across a community.My guess….and I’m sure that many will disagree…is that TV and the social viewing communities will fall prey to this.

      2. panterosa,

        Donna, don’t forget how social gaming is too – needing it’s own mechanics perhaps…

    7. awaldstein

      Interested in your measurement to optimize metrics…

    8. ShanaC

      What if you want to brag to yourself? (you keep track of outfits worn so ou don’t repeat). How do you switch that behavior into sharingOne thing I often note is that groups often automatically provide feedback for motivation, where as single users by themselves need some sort of secondary motivation. It makes it extremely difficult to transfer from single use to group easily because the initial single use motivation is often missing. (aka facebook without the like or comment mechanism doesn’t really give you feedback, and internal from the system without a network there would feel very artificial)

  12. LE

    @disqus and commenting systems have that utility somewhat.You get to say shit. And you don’t really know if anyone is reading or even cares about what you are saying or what they think (ratio of votes and replies is quite low compared to blog readership). But it provides value even if you get nothing in return.Most of this is in your mind the same way radio was described as “theater of the mind”.I wonder to what extent (ratio) commenting systems are used by creative vs. non-creatives types.

  13. Andrew Montalenti

    The choice of Foursquare as an example feels ironic to me, because it is exactly what I feel Foursquare lacks at the moment.As an active user of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, I gave Foursquare a solid run — even making it part of my mobile phone home screen for a few months. But after a few weeks of religiously checking in to locations, I just realized that I wasn’t getting any single-user value out of the service. What value did I get from checking in? Yes, other people could see where I was, but who cares? Yes, I enjoyed being mayor of some locations, but that novelty wore off quickly.Unlike Twitter/Facebook, where the single-user value is sharing my thoughts & ideas with the world (as well as shining a light on links I enjoy) or LinkedIn, where the single-user value is having a web-native curriculum vitae, Foursquare did nothing for me.Using it to plan trips is an interesting use case, but one that I could only see myself doing rarely. Ironically enough, I still stubbornly use Delicious actively — precisely because its single-user value has remained over the years, even as the service languished at Yahoo.

    1. ShanaC

      remembering places you want to go back to? I do that a lot. I honestly wish my comments were saved as tips/memory box items

      1. neuko

        Are you using 4sq to remember places you want to goback to? What elements of the context of a particular place are most important to you toremember?

  14. Josh Miller

    Do Twitter and Facebook have single user utility?

    1. Richard

      I use Facebook to save info info all the time. I do the same with twitter.

      1. awaldstein

        Facebook has hands down the worst search possible. Rediscovering comments within strings is the stuff of haphazard finding.And I’m a big user in some groups, like the European wine community, that live only there.How do you save stuff other than copying and pasting it to other files…pleistocene era processes?

    2. takingpitches

      Twitter has tons of single user utility for me. I use it to bookmark interesting content. I think it could do a much better job of exploiting that single user utility (or stored value to use another term that has come up on this blog recently) for multi-user utility such as by clearly demarcating favorites and then sharing that knowledge.

      1. Anne Libby

        I send lots of tweets with interesting links Evernote, for the same reason.

    3. fredwilson

      Not that is obvious to me

    4. Chris Grayson

      I have TweetDeck setup with a couple dozen columns, following up-to-the-second trends across both business and personal interests. These days my time spent actually tweeting is relatively minimal.On Facebook, you can use the “Viewable By: Only Me” feature on any content. I have a dozen or more photo albums that are only viewable by me β€” granted, in my case, it was just a convenient way of dealing with photo albums when I got a divorce two years ago from a 10 year marriage, and I’ve never invested the time deciding what pictures I wish to delete and which can be recategorized, but by my actions, I could see how other could use the “Viewable By: Only Me” setting in other ways. For instance, once when I was writing a post on a personal matter I had second thoughts on posting to my timeline, but decided I did not wish to delete the thought, so I posted it viewable only by me. Later I did the same again, using a wall post as a sort of post-it-note / to-do reminded, when I returned to Facebook again. Those are all anecdotal once offs, but I can see how others might evolve the “Only Me” feature for organizing content only for their own private use.

      1. ShanaC

        I have similar twitter usage

      2. Anne Libby

        I’d use Foursquare if it had this feature. (And maybe it does?! I’m so not comfortable with broadcasting my location in real time that I’ve never even played with it.)

    5. ShanaC

      facehook used to.



      1. fredwilson

        Ha! Best reply ever.

        1. FAKE GRIMLOCK

          IT WHAT ME DO.

      2. Donna Brewington White


    7. Anne Libby

      Connection. I keep gearing up to quit FB, and then think of the handful of people I’m unlikely to “see” anywhere else.(And for Twitter, discovery. William Gibson’s definition of Twitter as a “novelty aggregator” sold me on using it.)

      1. Drew Meyers

        I’m hearing more and more stories from people wanting to quit FB by the day..not sure what is going to push FB over the edge, but I think it’s eventually going to fall. It’s too big…not intimate enough anymore.

        1. Anne Libby

          Yes, and also the “fear factor” about what might become of our information.

  15. William Mougayar

    “One man’s single person utility is another man’s social value.”It’s the money quote, and could be tweaked to say “…is several people’s social value.”At this instant, several people have already clicked on your lists page, and besides wishing they were in Tokyo, have already benefited from those lists.It’s a one-to-many / producer-to-consumers relationship.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Tokyo has become more real to me than it ever would through a travel magazine. It honestly was not high on my list of places to go but I have a new appreciation.I see a potential marketing strategy in here somewhere for visitors bureaus where they sponsor a prominent traveler who uses Foursquare as a publicized travel log (with certain precautions taken for privacy and safety — time lapsed for instance so check-ins show up after the fact..

      1. Drew Meyers

        Visitor’s Bureaus are already sponsoring influential/prominent travel bloggers — just not specifically requiring them to use FourSquare lists (that I know of). I don’t doubt 4sq is one of the tools some of them use though.

  16. hypermark

    It’s an interesting paradox for bootstrapped startups, inasmuch as taking care of the utility for the individual user is integral to building real engagement, but imbuing with social is critical to virality. What to do first in the context of an MVP?Along those lines, many years back a partner and I built a product whose purpose was to make it easy to save, organize and share lists in a very rich “actionable” fashion.We were completely bootstrapped, and felt that we had to choose between doing the “save and organize” part or the “share” part in the initial beta stage. Opting for personal utility, we focused on “save and organize” over “share,” and in retrospect, it was the wrong choice.Obviously, there are many reasons for a project’s success or failure, but your post underscores the paradox we struggled with, and the tricky balance in finding the right mix.

  17. whitneymcn

    I’ve been calling it the “selfish bastard syndrome” for a while, but I suppose that “single user utility in a social system” is a phrase that would get me better speaking gigs. ;)And it turns out that I coined the phrase in response to a post of yours:

    1. fredwilson

      What goes around comes around

    2. kirklove

      Whit you know I agree. As a selfish bastard I listen to my exfm Loved tracks more than anything else.

      1. ShanaC

        I tend to listen to random blogs. I get very little use out of the following feature πŸ™‚

        1. kirklove

          In your case you may want to try Trending in your Network. Great way to hear a bunch of random stuff from people your trust. Just go to (swap out your exfm username for username, obviously).

      2. fredwilson

        Me too. I also listen to my library all the time. And of course there is no doubt I listen to more than anyone else

  18. Omar Thanawalla

    I agree with you. Kevin Systrom achieved this when he: allowed you to share your photo’s to other social networks, apply filter to your photo’s to make them look great, and let the user see what other beautiful photo’s people are taking across the world.

  19. Richard

    “less likely that I will follow my friends out”, brilliant. The challenge for foursquare is to get the right list to the right person at the right time. Know me dont show me.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Know me don’t show me. That’s good. I checked in for a year or so without any real value because I was investing in helping the app “know” me. Now I am experiencing the fruit of that — in small ways for now, but enough to keep me investing.

      1. Richard

        I want to like Foursquare, but until it learns that “less is more”, it will continue to sit dormant on my iphone. The idea that it can’t unseat Yelp, (Yelp!!) says a lot about its core competency.

  20. kidmercury

    for sure. in my opinion, the era of ignoring single user utility ended with ebay. sure, there are probably some exceptions, but i wouldn’t try risking it.

  21. AlexBangash

    Single user utility is even more important for enterprise applications.

    1. William Mougayar

      Actually, I was thinking it’s a great strategy to get in the door via the “consumerization of the enterprise” need, but it is not sufficient to have a single user utility. I think enterprises want to see value for the enterprise, in addition to value to the user. If the derivative of the single user utility touches the enterprise itself, then Yes.

      1. AlexBangash

        Agreed not sufficient if you want the enterprise to pay for it. πŸ™‚ Some new enterprise applications–Github, Atlassian, Yammer–are starting without converting the enterprise, just the users.

    2. ShanaC

      depends on the enterprise application

  22. Amenet

    Quite relevant and perhaps one of the most insightful posts of 2012. As Susan Cain reminded us in her wonderful book Quiet, 30% to 50% of us are introverts. Not so easy for us to share openly through social networks. However, apps and services with single user utility are essential to our lives. In my case, I would mention Pocket, Goodreads, Foursquare or Pinterest. Those services primarily provide single user utility to me . I use them for personal purposes – virtual memory, virtual storage…- but they also offer a first step towards multi-users social sharing which is often easier and more natural than for instance posting publicly to thousands of people on Facebook or Twitter.

    1. fredwilson

      Wow. This is a great comment. You are the user that is critical for success but many don’t focus on.

  23. Peter Fleckenstein

    Awesome post Fred. With out the single user utility I doubt there would be a social system worthy of speaking about. “One into Many”

  24. ShanaC

    I feel like I spend a lot of time telling people this. First contact should be useful. But it should be useful with a twist. If your user isn’t getting value early, they are unlikely to be sticky.The one problem is seeding social behavior. How do you shift between single utility to real utility in groups? That behavior shift often has to be seeded, and it is best seeded earlier on. Solitary users are hard to move one by one…



    1. fredwilson

      Could you post your rules somewhere please!!!

      1. Matt A. Myers

        Guest post #2?



        1. Matt A. Myers

          Maybe @fredwilson:disqus can do a book launch party at AVC.

          1. FAKE GRIMLOCK


          2. Donna Brewington White

            How about a physical party. Just today I was thinking AGAIN that we need some reason to gather like we did for the 50th birthday/donors choose event. I am hankering for this! I would come to NYC for a @FakeGrimlock:disqus book launch party!

          3. Matt A. Myers

            I would definitely make this trip! I would hope to get a signed version by @FakeGrimlock:disqus too – even if that really just means a bite out of the book and him leaving some drool on it.

          4. ShanaC

            I know!

          5. pointsnfigures

            He’d eat all the hors d” oevres, then you.

          6. Matt A. Myers

            And I’m with that.

        2. Matt A. Myers

          You should make your Chapter Index be a checklist for Startups – see how many they’re following. And/or link to or make a downloadable/printable checklist.

        3. fredwilson

          All the great artists leak

          1. FAKE GRIMLOCK


          2. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

            AWESOME post … sounded like Newton’s laws never disputed … but modified and applied even in Quantum Mechanics … … do get very very drunk often :-)… we need more of those posts.

        4. William Mougayar

          And it was posted in Canada because the US rejected it πŸ™‚

        5. Nick Grossman

          very nice. “YOU FAIL ON GIANT PILE OF SECOND BEST” really resonates for me.

    2. Eric Friedman

      This is actually really interesting because so many startups have this “I only need the first million users for this thing to work” mentality. The first X (maybe even as little as 2) users are the hardest because it is the first marketplace in effect. Its the age old “chicken or the egg” question because you need both to survive and nobody ever wants to go first. There is another type of post buried somewhere in this comment, which I will think on.I think about systems in two ways; single player and multiplayer.

  26. Dudu Mimran

    The holy grail is a service where you can get enough emotional/recognition value from the social interaction itself without actually needing the “single user utility” aspect of it. Facebook and twitter represent those although if you think hard you can always find other egoistic uses within it as well. I would argue that using Facebook for photo storage is just a matter of coincidence and not coming from logical planning – there are other services which does it better if I needed only that. The same as if I would not go to the airport just for visiting the duty free shops.The single user utility Indeed can help bootstrap (accidental sometimes) a new social behavior in places where the social value is not clear. The magic occurs when the new digital results of my utility which I would not mind sharing with others becomes something valuable to others.For new services which heart a new kind of social interaction, the single user utility seems just like a fallback and the focus should be kept more on the social aspect of it.In general it seems like there are two main genres of social networks, the ones which focus and highlight a social interaction and single user utility just fills the void sometimes for some of the users. The second type is actually a utility which evolved to a value driven network with social aspects.

  27. Kasi Viswanathan Agilandam

    I don’t see a paradox fred… you have tons of company (invested in) which focused on large networked engaged user … and if you make a simple utility for single user it automatically spreads to the millions.I see it more as a call ‘now that we have millions of engaged users … let us do the rest’It is like calling people for Independence day parade and show them a new form of ‘cotton candy’ … if we just call people to show a new ‘cotton candy’ … we may get only 100’s of participants.I see a lot correlation between your post on ‘Advice for 2013 and single user utility post’.

    1. ShanaC

      well, what if you are not one of millions. You exist alone, unconnected on the site. getting you into the network means providing first contact value and shifting said value for you into a community orientation over time

  28. Jonathan Berkowitz

    I once launched a social product for independent film festivals. It served about 250 festivals in its prime. Used to have a roadmap that had ‘individual’ and ‘networking’ features. Our language wasn’t as robust as Fred’s <sheepish grin=””> First ‘individual’ feature was ability to create personal calendars at the festival. First networking feature was rate / review film and share rating with others. I used to go tit-for-tat putting out features for individuals as frequently as features designed to network until we had enough scale to rely on the network content / features.

  29. markslater

    i had the privilege of meeting the guy that bought delicious. only because a mutual friend brought him by the office- not in any way because of what we do – so that i am clear.Talking to him i could not but think of you, and what your original hypotheses was.

  30. Pete Griffiths

    Single user utility is indeed the gold standard.The most recent superb example is Pinterest.

    1. fredwilson

      pinterest is a perfect example. i think of it as visual bookmarking.

      1. Pete Griffiths

        I wonder to what degree it truly acts as bookmarking rather than hoarding. In other words, once I have ‘pinned’ something, how often do I go back to the original as opposed to surveying my shiny toys in my zone of interest aligned aggregation.It certainly IS visual bookmarking, but to what degree does aggregation and curation act like that? I truly don’t know, but I have reason to be interested if you have any data on it.

  31. Sudarshan

    Absolutely. Come to think of it, we exist in a community driven world; with social networks popping up left, right and center – we’re always trying to target so called ‘groups’ and we’ve forgotten the most basic of things – offering value to a single user. I don’t think it’s a paradox, it’s perfectly acceptable if people think about it. Thanks for writing this.

  32. Donna Brewington White

    I think there is a sociological principle in here somewhere. Isn’t capitalism built around this at least to some extent?

    1. ShanaC

      sort of – I always thought capitalism was built around optimizing the supply/demand curve

      1. Donna Brewington White

        Yeah, yeah, I’m grossly oversimplifying. Micro-microeconomics.

  33. jason wright

    “So I encourage the product teams in our portfolio to think hard about building single person utility into their products.”I’m a little surprised that this wasn’t in their dna from the start.

  34. pointsnfigures

    Steve Jobs built products just for himself.

  35. Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Personalization of a service on the web is quite a powerful incentive to keep users hooked. Also, some of the single user utility can be greatly enhanced when more friends are using the same app. A compelling product is one that incentives a user to invite friends because he/she will get more out of it if their friends use it as well.

  36. Tom Labus

    StockTwits fills the bill in the this category. Great for a quick stock look up and.offers you the trading community’s comments too.

    1. howardlindzon

      i still want to make it simpler…our iphone app does this so well

  37. rudyc

    totally agree w/this statement. Crowded is still isolationist. its’ about ME and what i can do for know, I like this, I want this, I’m here, this is what I did, this is where I’m going..

  38. mikenolan99

    Off topic, but a great trip recommendation. While traveling with our kids in Japan a few years ago we hooked up with Chris Rowthorn – the lonely planet writer for Japan. He does private walking tours of Kyoto, Tokyo and Nara. He was fantastic – a real value, and was great with our kids. He has a website you can google – have a great time!

    1. fredwilson

      we are in kyoto and headed to nara today!

      1. mikenolan99

        Watch out for the deer in Nara Park! [email protected] if you want to reach out… also, we took the train to Nagasaki and stayed by the Peace Museum… incredible experience.

  39. Robert Verwaayen

    Great Post which reminded me of video games. Some of the best multi player games ever produced were single player at the core …. FIFA anyone ?

  40. Roham

    great post Fred. i always think of it through a gaming lens: a great single player mode is necessary though not sufficient for getting any multiplayer marketplace off the ground. it’s surprising how few folks get this.

  41. Oliver Crangle

    Fred, people save your lists because you’re Fred Fucking Wilson, brilliant VC, rich dude, and if you this is where you go in Tokyo, well, it’s coming from God. Don’t pretend to be so modest.

    1. fredwilson

      Yeah but they can save the best of list. Its them saving the single day lists that surprise me. And modesty is a nice attribute in people. I appreciate it and work hard to build it into my interactions.

      1. Oliver Crangle

        Okay, I see your point now. Thank you for the gracious and enlightening response.

  42. Brandon G. Donnelly

    Would you say that LinkedIn has SUU?

    1. fredwilson

      Yes. As a place to post your resume on the web

      1. Brandon G. Donnelly

        Right, thanks. This is really interesting. I’m working on a ‘social real estate community’ and we see a lot of parallels between what we’re doing and LinkedIn. Properties are our resumes.

        1. Drew Meyers

          I spent 7 yrs in RE community (5 with Zillow), so am curious what approach you’re taking on this. Happy to chat if you want..

          1. Brandon G. Donnelly

            Great, thanks Drew! Can we setup a time to chat on the phone? Drop me a note at [email protected] and let me know what might work for you. In the mean time, you can check out our latest blog post here:…. Our site is live as well, but only available to Toronto homeowners at the moment.

  43. Alok Deshpande

    I think you can take this one step further for entrepreneurs trying to build new social networks. Focus on singer user utility first — if that succeeds, the social benefit will follow (and the financial upside).I feel like many ‘pitches’ focus on the social/sharing component without proving the value of the core product to a single user (or small group of users). Would a single user or small group of users be willing to pay for your product if there was no sharing or social component?

  44. Luke Chamberlin

    An itinerary tells a story, a best of list does not.Best of lists can be long and unbalanced (how many sushi restaurants can you visit in one trip?).An itinerary feels curated and deliberate, like a mix-tape. It has personality. It has a beginning act, a middle, and an end.On another note, I wish Foursquare had better support for internationalization / translation of venue data. The Japanese venue lists are 80% incomprehensible to English speakers. The Foursquare data needs better translations to be useful for planning trips to other countries, like the way TripAdvisor translates place names.

    1. fredwilson

      Yessssss. I have had to triangulate addresses and such to figure what venue we are at.

    2. Drew Meyers

      I stopped using Foursquare while in Thailand because it was so hit or miss in terms of finding a readable name for the place I was at. Some places had no english name, and there was no way I was going to take the time to try to match Thai letters off the sign to Foursquare names.

  45. howardlindzon

    very helpful reminders. thx

  46. Sam

    Great post – articulates something I’ve been struggling with but hadn’t been able to show in this way.

  47. Terry J Leach

    After reading this post a few days ago, like all interesting ideas it incubated in the back of my mind. Today is New Years day. It hit me! Single User utility is the design methodology I need for 2013 for a successful go-to market strategy. THANKS!!!

  48. Youssef Rahoui

    True! BTW, This single user utility can create new business and monetization opportunities. For example, when I research a topic (eg: mobile design), I search the keyword in Delicious, I then look into the bookmarks of the users that have tagged the most sites on this topics: It saves you hours! I am pretty sure they could have monetize it in some way, at least I would have paid for that!

  49. Anuj Agarwal

    I read the article thrice and would like someone help me clear a doubt. Does it says single user utility is “good” to have in a social product?The line “think hard about building single person utility into their products” got me more confused.

    1. fredwilson


  50. Max

    Interesting. What about twitter? Is there single user utility there? Perhaps if the social experience is compelling enough, utility does not apply

  51. Linds Panther

    The thing that this post made so apparent for me in considering the value of building single-user utility into a product is that it addresses the chicken and the egg problem faced by many new social systems. By providing single user utility, there’s less of a need for a social system to reach critical mass before its users will begin to realize the benefits of the product.It feels like a natural process when you start with “what problem does X solve for me as an individual today?” rather than “what problem will X solve when all of my friends are using it?”

  52. awaldstein

    The more I embrace the messiness of life, community and people, the more dynamic and natural the order comes out. And the less fragile it is.

  53. awaldstein

    I bet if someone did a graph of who talks and comments to whom the circle is still small regardless of the size of the string.Larger strings make the odds of those circles being broken higher, which is a good thing.

  54. kidmercury

    fredland has an overpopulation crisis. disqus is an outstanding product, though it is a victim of its own success in a way, though as a comment engine only it is not equipped to deal with such density.

  55. Aaron Klein

    The key, I find, is to dip your cup into the river every once in a while for a nice, refreshing drink…and not to worry about all the other water rushing by. It will find someone else to refresh. πŸ™‚

  56. awaldstein

    yup….glyphs on cave walls.

  57. ShanaC

    we’re scaling up. Considering there were no actual barfights over politics recently, I’m happy.

  58. fredwilson


  59. Donna Brewington White

    Hard to know if I tend to respond to certain people more often because they are familiar or if they are familiar because I am consistently drawn to their comments and thought patterns.

  60. awaldstein

    Don’t know.But when you skim a long thread you see your friends first. That’s human nature. And the power of that graph is self evident everywhere on the web from the broadest platform to the most contained community.

  61. Anne Libby

    Community is one of the most challenging containers for relationship…

  62. panterosa,

    You point out why control freaks are never happy as well……

  63. awaldstein

    Fascinated me forever.First job was running the bbs community for Atari. A community of 1M+ game enthusiast. Leaning by immersion big time. Still learning.

  64. Anne Libby


  65. kidmercury

    are you really going to do that? merely inquiring, not judging. i would be happy to be a fredland taxpayer, provided i can afford the tax (or one of taxes, if it is a progressive tax system with multple layers).

  66. ShanaC


  67. awaldstein

    As a forever recovering one you may have touched on something!

  68. JimHirshfield

    Ha ha ha…you got it.

  69. fredwilson

    i am not. i was just kidding. we are a tax free zone.

  70. fredwilson

    that was a joke