, Viral Loops, and the Virtue of Simplicity

The home page

Something unusual happened this afternoon on Twitter — out of the blue, I got three notifications that I had been added to a “list.” Normally I would ignore that kind of a notification; I can’t control who adds me to lists and most of the time they appear to be bots or dragnets for certain hashtags. But getting three in a row has definitely never happened…So this time, I looked to see what was up:

Notifications from people who created lists using

The top notification is pretty typical and appears to be some variety of spam. But the other two got my attention — why was I added to a list called @_VincentS_ and another called @BrentBeshore? These are accounts that I follow and that follow me back…both rather conspicuously advertised a service used to create them, so I decided to check it out.

Vicariously allows you to pick a user (or collection of users) and automatically generate a list on your account that mirrors their timeline. You can effectively “see Twitter through another user’s eyes,” which is an interesting concept. There’s a rather rich history of people building apps like this that feel like features Twitter should just build themselves, most recently the Quoted Replies app that resulted in Jack Dorsey offering the developer a job at Twitter. But Twitter’s product team moves slower than a grandma down a Walmart cereal aisle, so I think the developer(s) behind Vicariously are safe for now.

Viral Loops in Action

Before I break down the product itself, I want to point out the hydrogen bomb of a customer acquisition tactic at work here. At the core is a viral loop built on top of Twitter’s (questionable) decision to notify any user when they are added to a list.

I first learned of the concept of “viral loops” from Andrew Chen in his blog post, “What’s your viral loop? Understanding the engine of adoption.” That post defines a “viral loop” as:

The steps a user goes through between entering the site to inviting the next set of new users

In this case, the loop looks something like this:

I would guess the average number of notifications generated by a new user is above a thousand, which harkens back to the olden days of games on Facebook or people uploading their entire contact book to LinkedIn.

While I admire the raw, unbridled power of this particular growth hack, it has already attracted some unpleasant attention. Kudos to the developer(s) behind the app for taking swift action to tone it down:

The Virtue of Simplicity

The reason I am struck by Vicariously is not because of its dubious customer acquisition strategy, but rather because it is utterly plain and direct. The more products I work on, the more sensitized I become to complexity. It’s hard to recall a product as ruthlessly efficient as Vicariously. The website is a single page with absolutely no bullshit — there’s not even a self-indulgent “About” page where we get to learn all about how the founders went to Stanford and fostered puppies while advising the President on matters relating to the search for extraterrestrial life.

In fact, there are only two buttons on the home page, both of which sign you in with a single click. The site consistently works to explain everything visually with .gif explanations or icon-based cues. The app itself is stunningly spartan; even a two-step process is digested one piece at a time:

That’s it…that’s the whole app.

Technically, the most “simple” interface you can strive for an invisible one. Back in 2015 these “invisible apps” were all the rage. The most prominent example of this on Twitter is probably the Thread Reader App, a bot that can be summoned at a mention to reformat a thread into a dedicated web page. My big beef there is similar to the earlier tangent on viral loops, because people responding to threads by beckoning bots is not my idea of enlightened discourse. I prefer something more like Vicariously.

I wish the Vicariously team all the best and congratulate them on a remarkably elegant app. I look forward to trying it out (on private mode).



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Joe Morrison

Joe Morrison

Comedic relief at Umbra. Writing about maps and the people that make them. For inquiries: jrmorrison.jrm [at] gmail [dot] com