The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For creators, community is the new follower count

Influencers are setting up groups on chat apps, like Geneva, Discord and Telegram, which they say offer a more intimate, community-oriented experience than traditional social networks.

Similar to chat apps like Slack or Discord, Geneva allows groups of people to talk in different topic-oriented rooms. Fans of the platform say it offers a more intimate, community-oriented experience than traditional social networks. (Geneva)
8 min

Kate Glavan and Emma Roepke, both 23, are best friends and New York City content creators, known for skewering the wellness industry on their Instagram meme page and popular podcast, “Sea Moss Girlies.”

In April 2021, the pair’s followers encountered an invitation to a new medium: “Join Geneva and meet other Sea Moss Girlies.” Within minutes, fans flooded in.

Geneva allows groups of people to talk in different topic-oriented rooms, similar to chat apps like Slack or Discord. Absent follower counts and likes, members are free to interact without the pressure of public metrics, an algorithmic feed, or company oversight shaping their conversations. Fans of the platform say it offers a more intimate, community-oriented experience than traditional social networks.

In their Geneva community, called a “home,” Glavan and Roepke have an easygoing rapport with members. They exchange music and TV recommendations in long threads, they marked National Eating Disorder Awareness Week by swapping personal stories of their mental health struggles and even met up with members for an IRL picnic.

“It's more about what the community wants instead of just both of us posting,” said Glavan. “On TikTok and Instagram … there's a hierarchy there. On Geneva, Emma and I are present, but it's not all about us.”

The trans Twitch star delivering news to a legion of LGBTQ teens

For nearly a decade, social media has been dominated by broadcast-based social platforms where creators blast out a steady stream of content for followers to watch and comment on, often with no response. Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok all operate according to this model.

But now content creators are setting up accounts on chat apps, like Geneva, Discord and Telegram, where they can connect privately and directly with people they know are listening. Some say the toxicity and poor moderation on massive, open social networks have pushed them into these more controlled spaces, where they can speak freely without worrying about bad faith attacks.

Justin Hauser, Geneva’s founder, said he was anticipating this shift when he began building the platform, which launched publicly last spring. Hauser, a tech entrepreneur who co-founded the CBD beverage Recess, said he noticed people seemed to be rebelling against the top-down content creator ecosystem, which dominated the 2010s, in favor of smaller platforms that didn’t emphasize public metrics, including likes and follower counts.

“People are fed up and they’re seeking salvation in safer spaces,” Hauser said, “and I don’t mean safer in the political term, but places where they know they’re not being tricked to play someone else’s game.”

Followers are a valuable currency. Who should own them?

Geneva has become popular particularly among Gen Z women and TikTok stars: Lifestyle creator Chrissy Rutherford recently launched a Geneva home for women to chat about dating, astrology, and careers, while TikToker Belle Perez started London Town Girlies, a community of over 7,000 young women living in or moving to London. Users can toggle between different communities, each offering a variety of chat channels. Geneva also allows for private messaging, where users can add friends from different Geneva homes to have a one-on-one conversation.

Hauser argues that Geneva users don’t bond over a piece of content, or a particular content creator; they bond over conversation and shared interests. And because home creators don’t drive the conversation — they simply provide a place for people to connect — users are on an equal footing.

“Geneva has no town square,” said Hauser. “It has no follower counts or likes. What it’s built to do is give people an online place to hang out with their communities every day and feel like they know who they’re talking to.”

Facebook recognized this shift in 2017, when the company began pushing its Groups product. The company hosted its first “Communities Summit” for influencers embracing the movement toward smaller, closed communities that same year. Around that time, a fleet of services offering intimacy with creators began to gain popularity. Platforms like Cameo, which allows fans to purchase custom shout-outs from celebrities, along with OnlyFans and Patreon, which let users charge monthly subscription fees for exclusive content, ballooned.

But the next generation of social apps, such as Discord and Geneva, allow a deeper connection with both the content creator and others in their fandom. For big influencers, building a Geneva home, Discord server, or Telegram channel strengthens their ties to their audiences.

“Creators have always had very passionate and engaged audiences … but for the first time ever the tools are starting to be developed so they can have access and engage with the community directly,” said Zack Honarvar, CEO of CreatorNow, an online boot camp for content creators.

He pointed to the Backstreet Boys as an example. In the early 2000s, the Backstreet Boys had an intense fandom, but there were limited ways for people to connect outside of in-person events. Today, Honarvar argues, fans of the band would have a Geneva room or a Discord, where they could share song lyrics and gossip about band members, or organize rides to upcoming shows.

For some, the shift is also a protective measure against de-platforming and an increasingly fickle algorithm. Telegram and Discord are especially popular among influencers who have been booted off apps like YouTube or Twitter, sometimes for promoting misinformation, violent extremism, or targeted harassment. Hauser says Geneva hasn’t struggled with issues around moderation yet, and he believes design choices, like the fact that Geneva requires real names, make it less hospitable for bad actors and trolls.

Some women shared the messages they get on Instagram. It’s not pretty.

While many YouTubers have founded Discord servers, TikTokers seem to be gravitating toward Geneva. Nina Haines, a 24-year-old in Brooklyn, N.Y., who originally found fame on TikTok through posting about books, now runs a Geneva home built out of the BookTok community for Sapphic women and nonbinary people.

“TikTok also has this ephemerality, you can’t pin it down, and a lot of people desire more long term, stable communities,” she said. “I saw the same people commenting on all my videos, and now we’ve transitioned into a space where we can all interact with each other really intentionally, rather than randomly through the TikTok algorithm.”

Community can also be profitable. Ushering fans into intimate spaces deepens their bonds to each other, and, ultimately, the influencer who created the community. “From a business standpoint, community is a means to harness customer loyalty,” the writer Terry Nguyen recently wrote in Vox. Lifestyle and fashion companies like Peloton, Glossier, and Victoria’s Secret PINK have all made efforts to foster online communities to boost their sales and relevance to a younger market.

Some brands are already setting up shop on Geneva. Nadya Okamoto, co-founder of August, a period-care brand, helps oversee a 3,000-person community she says has been essential to her company’s success. “There’s a difference between an audience and a community,” she said. “An audience is where one person has a microphone and you’re speaking to a bunch of viewers; a community is when everyone has a mic and we’re all talking to each other. A lot of brands use it to describe their social media audience. They say, ‘Oh, our community is 10,000 people.’ But they mean they have 10,000 followers.”

Discord servers and Geneva homes also provide an instant focus group for creators looking to boost their latest product. “When I post in Geneva I can get immediate feedback,” said Serena Kerrigan, a content creator and entrepreneur in New York City. Incorporating community feedback builds loyalty among consumers and allows creators to more effectively market to their audiences.

Internet ‘algospeak’ is changing our language in real time, from ‘nip nops’ to ‘le dollar bean’

“What initially made creators really attractive to brands was that they could define their audiences and brands could get a bull’s eye market,” said Liz Perle, a content-creator strategist and former head of teen community at Instagram. “Now, we have TikTok and other algorithmic feeds popping up, where the main way you grow is through virality. So creators no longer have these really defined audiences that they’re growing in a deliberate way and they can tell brands about.”

Hauser is less concerned with the marketing applications of his platform, and hopes instead that Geneva can help the internet get back to its roots as a tool to connect people. Users of his platform agree.

“Everyone is drowning in content,” said Casper ter Kuile, an author who used Geneva to co-found a community for people interested in spirituality called The Nearness which has over 200 members. “What we need is containers, we need containers for relationships to grow deeper.”