Discover more from The Comma Project by Devin Baker
Fitness brands and experiences today aren't cutting it. We need to bring community back.
I want more. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting more, and I think there is a place for more.
More opportunities to do different things, meet new people, bring existing friends, and do it in a more deliberate, meaningful way that surpasses the superficial connections we’re so used to in our existing routines.
More than the rinse-and-repeat cycle of workout, work, sleep, repeat Monday through Thursday and come Friday and Saturday, tacking on dinner, drinks, 3am Uber home, not-so-good sleep, repeat.
I think we’re best positioned to actually get more from our fitness experiences. They’re some of the most rewarding, productive, and enjoyable habits that we engage in, many times a week, every week. They can bond people together. Those that show up naturally have some base level of shared values, goals, or interests. Fitness activities, whatever the individual choice may be, are just straight up one of the most important parts of daily life for many - certainly for me.
But, the ones we’re used to aren’t enough. I want them to be more than a dedicated space to sweat or a professionally-produced virtual talking head telling me how fast to cycle.
So many already talk the talk, posting all about their “community” or their “tribe”. But they’re not delivering. That communal energy and connection is just missing. At best, it ends as you walk out of the studio, but often leaves something to be desired during class.
Why? I haven’t been able to get this question out of my head. Over two months later, and lots of reading, thinking, and talking with people that are smarter than me, I’ve learned some things and have some thoughts.
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NYU Stern professor Scott Galloway has a compelling perspective on how to spot an industry ripe for disruption: When the price charged for the offering outpaces inflation with no underlying increase in productivity. Add in a slower adoption of technology than the rest of the world, and you have a space behind the times. The two industries on his short list? Healthcare and education. The experience with a doctor or in a classroom doesn’t altogether look that much better than it did 50 years ago. Arguably, the changes made have actually eroded value in these systems.
Scott is all over education, and some of the biggest tech giants are jumping into healthcare. But fitness is a step earlier in the healthcare lifecycle with real benefits. It is well-researched and documented that regular fitness habits lead to happier, healthier, longer lives.
And it’s even bigger than fitness, which is just one part of the $4.5T (yes, trillion with a “t”) wellness economy that has grown as people increasingly come to value the benefits of a more holistic sense of health and well-being. It’s more than simply exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy diet. It’s also pursuing sound mental health, rest, recovery, and leisure. Also cultivating vibrant social lives, meaningful activities, and relationships. The wellness movement is the increasing sense that there is and deserves to be more that matters, that living well and feeling good means a lot of different things across increasingly more aspects of our lives. That we should pursue more in the different aspects of our lives to support our living well and feeling good. That it’s important, and that it deserves more attention.
The wellness movement is an intersection of attention to the things that matter in order to live better. The boutique, then connected fitness waves we have seen were built on this sort of intersection - fitness and convenience (think spin bike one room away), fitness and self-care (think Kiehl’s or Oribe products in the locker rooms), fitness and self-motivation (think hype-man inspirational instructor monologues).
They realize that intersection is important, but what they’re overlooking is that a lot of these intersections thus far are individual and narrow. They stay in our “fitness” bucket for the day, and don’t replace or satisfy our needs in other parts of the day. For most, going to a music-pumping, dimly-lit red room for a workout won’t satisfy the craving for indulging in nightlife.
But I wonder - what about an intersection between fitness and a broader, more fundamental human need? Fitness and community? Fitness and connection? Fitness and meaning? Fitness and shared experience? These are things we search for not in narrow, specific activities like you would to solve your desire for convenience (pay up for the taxi instead of taking the subway), motivation (watch an inspirational speech on YouTube), or self-care (indulge in a scented bath-bomb). Connection, community, camaraderie can be incorporated into more and different parts of our lives because they themselves are bigger, broader concepts, with higher impact. Our friends and mentors, real connections, come from anywhere - from work, the local nonprofit organization, our circle of friends from college.
The fact that it’s bigger, broader, more impactful makes an idea like this harder to actually deliver. It’s why so many fitness concepts have seen some success delivering on a narrower focus, but miss the mark at being bigger than that. Narrow and individual are easier to grasp, communicate, and execute against. People like the $50 shampoo and convenience delivered by some of the names we know today.
But with the increasing sense that wellness is and should be more - more than just one behavior or habit, integrated into more of our lives - I think there is an opportunity for a different, broader type of fitness. An opportunity that delivers more than just physical fitness, but also an opportunity for people to connect with others in a more meaningful and deliberately social way. Couple physical fitness with social and mental well-being, and you have a more holistic, visceral, fulfilling experience that not only addresses this gap that’s felt by many (myself included) as the desire for more underpins the wellness movement, but that’s also well on its way to fighting and preventing problems that plague the healthcare system today.
I came across Packy McCormick’s multi-part piece on why in-real-life (or IRL) is here to stay - that the digital revolution we’ve been experiencing can’t and won’t replace the role of certain in-person, physical experiences and communities. Reading his writings fired me up - I think it’s spot on, and tracks right to this question I’ve been thinking about.
It’s well worth giving Packy’s work a read, but for sake of length, I’m summarizing several structural trends he identifies that are making the world ripe for IRL communities:
Evolution of retail: With traditional retail declining, landlords will look to fill those vacant spaces with new concepts that engage and draw in customers
Decline of religion: Religion serves as a communal hub, a place with a shared set of values, acceptance, friends, and community; with 7.5M Americans losing religion between 2012 and 2015, and the percentage of Americans saying they never attend religious services up 3x from 50 years ago, this is resulting in these human needs becoming increasingly unaddressed
Rise of the experience / passion economy: People are assigning more value to experiences with expenditures on experience-related services growing ~4x faster than on goods over the past several years
Change in the role of work in our lives: People are increasingly seeking separation between their work and social lives; older generations saw work as another hub, where personal and professional accomplishment, salary, friends, and community all came together - you lived and worked in one place for 40 years, then retired; now, people are increasingly working from home, self-employed, job-hopping, and searching for meaning, purpose, community and personal relationships outside of work
There’s no question that the structure of our lives is changing, but it’s increasingly resulting in holes where the old world used to be, but where our new world doesn’t fill the gap. We’re acutely feeling the old world's absence.
I believe an IRL version of this social, more meaningful, community-first fitness “club” can help fill this gap. Connected fitness doesn’t do it well without the IRL component, and the boutique fitness experience leaves something to be desired in the classroom, and ends at the studio doors.
I read about a framework that's very relevant today and resonates with our current culture and behavior as people and consumers. I’m going to frame up this idea of an IRL fitness community along these lines to illustrate its potential.
Product / Zeitgeist Fit
D’Arcy Coolican, partner at Andreessen Horowitz, spoke about a framework he uses to determine what’s coming next. He calls it product / zeitgeist fit - when what’s being built "resonates with the mood of the times."
If something has product / zeitgeist fit, it is not simply because the product is better, but because "it’s connecting with something that’s culturally relevant at that moment." It wins through emotion, not just function; and emotion drives behavior.
Coolican proposes that the best way to see the future is to see what’s not working that people still really care about; things broken, but still inspiring energy and enthusiasm.
Let’s talk current zeitgeist, and the ties to an IRL fitness community of more. First, a look at the social piece; then, what role fitness can play in that context.
The Current Social Zeitgeist
ZEITGEIST: Despite the proliferation of tech-enabled connectivity in our lives, we’ve now seen a resulting wave of feelings of isolation and loneliness. Mercedes Bent from Lightspeed Ventures, in her piece on the rise of the experience economy, illustrates this impact: More teens report feeling lonely now than in the two decades prior; between 2000 and 2015, the number of teens who met up with friends “frequently” dropped by 40%.
These statistics are striking, and we’ve all sensed, read, and experienced firsthand how the increasing speed and availability of little dopamine hits of information and affirmation on our digital platforms affect everything from our work to our social lives. Transforming our existence from IRL to digital (or URL as Mercedes coins it) and the war for our attention is driving shifts from IRL experiences like brunch with friends to broadcasting URL substitutes of Instagrammable food porn fishing for affirmation in the form of “likes."
Despite the tech overlords fighting for our every second of our attention, we’re seeing some shift back to focusing on the present, in the form of one of the important trends Packy highlights, which has been dubbed the experience economy.
This has driven the rise of spending on experiences over things. A study by Harris Group found that 72% of millennials prefer spending money on experiences over traditional goods, with McKinsey calling attention to the acceleration of this transformation, with spending shifting from goods to experiences at a 3.9x rate.
SO WHAT? In this world, as Mercedes so accurately observes, “...getting someone to commit to a pre-booked class or experience is one of the best ways to avoid being flaked on. In a generation where everyone flakes but hates being flaked on, this has an important bonding effect.”
As we turn back to experience, showing up in person matters, providing another layer beyond what the URL substitute could ever deliver. Being in person provides connection through a depth of interaction, a sharing of experience that can bond people way more effectively than an online imitation. Not to mention the fact that simply showing up provides a signal of intention - they chose to dedicate their remaining free time, which we seem to have less and less of these days and means way more than a “like” or “retweet” online. In a digital world of superficiality, real, present IRL experience carries an even louder signal amongst the URL noise.
ZEITGEIST: James Currier from NFX, another early stage tech investor, homes in on the ineffectiveness of social media at driving meaningful interaction, saying “social media has become more media and less social.”
In his argument for how to return social media to provide real social value, James hits on the “…growing demand for intimate shared online experiences around doing things we love,” and acknowledging that “connection is becoming less about asynchronous consumption and more about real-time togetherness.”
SO WHAT? I couldn’t agree more - real-time togetherness matters, but I argue that our online lives aren’t trending that way. On the one hand, we’re increasingly coming to value experiences over goods IRL, desiring “real-time togetherness," but our online existence isn’t supporting us. We take the amazing vacation IRL, but our Instagram accounts are still an after-the-fact curation of our experiences, presented as aesthetically as possible and meant to please and elicit likes. It’s a broadcast meant for viewing - more like media than social connection. We’re increasingly realizing that our online lives don’t correspond to the evolution of our other values.
IRL is better served to deliver this real-time togetherness - online can’t get us there.
I like Packy’s take on how technology’s role in our lives can and should evolve as we become more woke, saying “we will do more and more basic work online - buying goods, finding information - and then we'll sign off and head to offline spaces where we can spend time with each other, strengthening our communal bonds, improving ourselves, and just having fun.”
We’re increasingly coming to realize that IRL is what matters, and tech isn’t doing the trick. Packy takes the optimistic view that as we increasingly experience the negative side-effects of today’s tech, we learn how to use tech to make our lives better; to free up time so we can do the things that matter IRL.
ZEITGEIST: In addition to digital overwhelm driving behavior changes, it’s also driving a shift in how we assign value as consumers. Writer Ana Andjelic observes that “in the past, more was always more. Brands promised us to be more attractive, more accomplished, more affluent, only if we bought more of their products….Similarly, bigger was always better: a bigger house, a bigger car, a bigger sofa, a bigger logo."
Times have changed. Ana notes how the existential anxiety millennials are increasingly feeling (climate crisis, political polarization, increasing feelings of isolation and depression, not to mention a global pandemic) is reversing this association of value with “bigger."
There’s “...a general shift to micro in our relationship with the world. There’s micro-socializing, micro-attention, micro-experiences, micro-focus, micro-expectations…Millennials are turning their attention to everyday things with an almost obsessive, laser-like focus. Can’t afford a home? Get a great mattress. Cook with nice cutlery. Don’t have a retirement account? Enjoy looking at your sill filled with plants. Invest in a beautiful spatula.”
SO WHAT? Sounds an awful lot like Alan Watts, preaching his “message for an age of anxiety.” Written in 1951, but pretty damn spot on.
This is driving us to find meaning and fulfillment in the mundane. It’s driving the tidal wave of aesthetic that we see on Instagram. The problem with an aesthetic coffee maker and mug is that it’s fleeting - it ends when the cup is empty.
I argue there’s a better way. Not aesthetic, but IRL. Togetherness, emotion, endorphins, and connecting with people where the relationship and meaningful substance keep on giving. As Packy says, experience is a new luxury, and “…community commands a premium.”
ZEITGEIST: Ana also talks about how this wave of aesthetics, a “taste regime” as she calls it, is driving “…constant internal and external self-perfecting.” This is a vicious cycle. Existential anxiety is driving a reduction, a move to the micro and aesthetic, which drives existential anxiety over a constant cultivation in pursuit of internal and external perfection and aesthetic. Doesn’t sounds nice.
The consulting duo Nemesis hits on this idea as well in their piece on what they call “cultural umami” where they notice that “things [are] getting more and more delicious, more and more expensive, and all the while, more and more immaterial.” Once again, this focus on the micro and aesthetic is taking us further and further from meaning and substance.
SO WHAT? Back to IRL. While nice, an artisanal, aesthetic Dutch oven won’t make you happy. Sure, brands can lean in, making their stuff look better on our iPhone screens, but that doesn’t solve the toxic effect of this move towards superficial aesthetic and stressful perfection and curation.
Real friends, meaningful relationships, and endorphins from physical presence and connection, on the other hand, are the gift that keeps on giving. It’s its own sort of virtuous cycle, driving greater intimacy, meaning, fulfillment, making us want more. Getting more of the stuff that matters fills the gap felt so acutely by so many and removes the need to pursue superficial substitutes that have their own harmful side effects.
So where does fitness come in?
The Current Fitness Zeitgeist
ZEITGEIST: We’re sick of hype. We lived through the overpriced t-shirts driven by artificial scarcity that signaled you were "fill-in-the-blank" enough. Cool enough, rich enough, stylish enough - just enough. Through this lens, even fitness apps come with a signal, letting others know that you live a life of athletic aptitude, or at the very least that you care enough about it to pay, much like the signal pricey athleisure gives off. Now, in line with the rise of aesthetic, and especially amplified by COVID, we’re experiencing a return to values, a refocusing on simplicity and essentialism - “a new minimalism.”
Highsnobiety says that the “[hype] Immunized Shopper still values connoisseurship, yet is now reckoning with a newfound aversion to the more shallow aspects of luxury. To put in more bluntly: the Immunized Shopper has been sick with hype, and now they’re sick of hype.” Of the aesthetic systems they polled their readers on, “minimalism” ranked the highest in terms of its appeal in a post-pandemic world.
We’ll shift to aligning our actions, our purchasing, our identities with our values - a sort of signaling not for hype and status, but for identity and connection. This is a reversal of the confusing and signal-heavy world we live in now, where our habits and existence, especially online, don’t quite match what we truly value.
SO WHAT? This is why I’m drawn so strongly to the opportunity in fitness. Like I said at the top, it can be one of the most rewarding things we do. It’s productive, intentional, visceral; and it could be more. It could be communal, bonding, meaningful. It could be more than fitness like the Equinox tag line claims it is.
Connected fitness is taking over the world, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The accessibility, convenience, and overall awareness it brings through being able to get sleek, highly produced classes in your spare bedroom greatly improves the overall quality and frequency of fitness habits for many. But it’s not a perfect experience. Per the WSJ, “you don’t get teacher’s adjustments or a real community feel when you’re exercising from home.” Digital is good at maximizing scale and accessibility, but you can’t transport environment, energy, and humanity. Connected fitness doesn’t do it all; and that’s okay, it doesn’t have to.
In the framework of using technology for what it’s good at (convenience, scale, lowering cost) and using IRL experiences for what tech doesn’t do well (community, connection, shared experience), we shouldn’t try to use connected fitness to solve all of our problems.
This is where the IRL fitness experience comes in. As discussed earlier, we’ve seen some progress, with certain fitness concepts targeting the intersection with some of the things that matter, but there’s still an unaddressed role that exists at the crux of both the social and fitness zeitgeists we’re feeling now. I don’t think that concept is out there yet.
ZEITGEIST: Joe Vennare, watcher of all things fitness and wellness, has written on the rise of the "transformation economy" on the back of the experience economy, where people don’t just want to have fun, they want to grow, change, improve. This mentality is another component of the wellness movement, wanting more, wanting better.
But there’s a problem - a lot of what consumers are sold in the name of wellness is pseudoscience. Joe is also all over this, saying “medicine treats disease; wellness sells outcomes.”
Combine transformation and experience, and you get something that really resonates.
SO WHAT? I’m no scientist, but I’m not quite on board with mustard baths being “life-changing” or psychic vampire repellent being anywhere close to effective. It’s just flat out hard to tell if a lot of the products and habits championed by figureheads of the wellness movement are effective at all. One thing I do know, however, is how important and impactful fitness and meaningful relationships are, how much better they make me feel. It’s also simple and accessible, which most wellness hacks aren't.
Given the attention, time, and money people have invested and continue to invest in experience and transformation in addition to all the other trends we see that make up the current zeitgeist, an IRL fitness community is perfectly positioned to deliver something that really resonates. It can deliver something that people are desperately searching for, but can’t find, in a world where the proliferation of our digital experience is so misaligned with what we value, and is driving us away to the insufficient substitutes we have at our disposal.
What’s Not Going to Change?
I recently read about a framework utilized by Jeff Bezos where he flips the popular prompt in which people try to envision future sources of value by predicting what the world is going to be like in 10 years. Bezos instead believes a more apt question is to determine what will not change in 10 years, since it can be near-impossible to predict the texture of the world in the future. He knew that people would always care about low prices, fast delivery, and massive selection, and he knew that he could build a business around these core values.
Like Packy, I think that the rise of trends we’re experiencing means we’ll see a pull back to IRL that’s here to stay. I think that in 10 years people will still want healthful ways to sweat; they’ll still want social lives with people that bring meaning, connection, and fun. And I think an opportunity to combine the two sounds pretty darn good, now and in 10 years.
Like I said - I want more, and I believe others are looking for it too. We’re seeing an increasing misalignment between the role our digital world plays in our lives and the things that we value. Interestingly, the ineffectiveness of the digital world that has grown to take up so much of our lives is often even driving what we value, shifting our fundamental desires. We’re seeing an attempt of certain concepts to deliver an intersection of some of these values.
But, I argue that what exists today is not enough to address some of these fundamental desires we hold, with the tension amplified by the gaps in our lives. This is encapsulated in the current zeitgeist, acutely felt today.
I believe there is an opportunity at the crux of these issues best addressed through an IRL, community-first fitness approach that can make progress on filling some of these gaps; to deliver more of what people are searching for.
It starts with uniting people with shared values and interests, giving them an outlet to engage, in person, with each other to establish connection and meaningful bonds, in a fitness context that begets progress, improvement, and sound mental and physical health. Sound mind, sound body, sound community and companionship.
I certainly don’t have it all figured out yet, but these ideas (and many more!) are incessantly turning over and over in my head. They fascinate me and I’ll continue to work through them. If anything resonates, or if you have any thoughts, additions, counterpoints, or disagreements, please do reach out. I’d love to keep engaging and hear from others.
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