Are there any viable alternatives to Facebook?
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Mark Zuckerberg’s not wholly reassuring testimony before the US Senate did little to placate angry users wondering whether they should #DeleteFacebook. But where to go if you leave a social media platform with two billion users, close to a third of the world’s population?
While a friend of mine opted for full social media cold turkey, most aren’t ready to kick the habit completely. The cool kids deserted Facebook for Instagram and WhatsApp some time ago but, as these are both owned by Facebook, they don’t feel like a genuine alternative for those worried about Zuckerberg’s reach into their lives.
A truly different social media experience probably requires a different business model. As we now know: if the service is free, you are not the customer but the product. Twitter, Snapchat and others operate on the same advertising-led model as Facebook and are vulnerable to the same problems.
To make sure our data is not being harvested we might — gulp — have to face paying for social media use. So what are the options? Vero began as a competitor to Instagram in 2015, gaining traction with users who liked posts appearing in their news feed chronologically rather than ordered by an algorithm. Earlier this year, numbers began a steep rise from 200,000 to more than four million, with many of these switching from Instagram.
Founder Ayman Hariri has said a paid model will make it clear to customers that they, not advertisers, are in charge. As the billionaire son of Lebanon’s late former prime minister, he may have more scope to experiment with this than most. But in the prevailing climate, ethical consumers demand good behaviour as well as good business plans. As Vero’s numbers rose, allegations surfaced of mistreated workers at Saudi Oger, the construction company that was the source of Hariri’s wealth, although the 39-year-old has said that he had left the company before the incidents in question.
Idka, based in Sweden, is another subscription-based option. Barely launched when the Cambridge Analytica story broke, it has seen a rush of interest over the past few weeks. Goran Wagstrom, chief executive, says: “Suddenly we are getting visitors from different countries, particularly the US.” He says customers spend time carefully reading the company’s terms and conditions, perusing Idka’s promise of absolute data privacy.
The Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco, which had about 4,500 Facebook likes, is among those that have now switched to Idka. “Continuing to participate in Facebook . . . condones their unethical behaviour,” says founder Todd Hosfelt.
Idka prices start from €2 a month. But if paying for social media is unpalatable, what about a model that pays users when they post? Steemit pays users in a cryptocurrency called Steem as they produce content. It can be traded in blockchain markets for conventional currency and has a value of about $3 a unit. The company says it has paid out $22.7m to users since June 2016.
With 13 million unique visits in January, the platform is ad-free; no need to sell users’ eyeballs while the company makes money from the rising value of its stock of digital tokens. “It would be good if we could keep it that way,” says co-founder Ned Scott. The untried blockchain model may worry some, however, and the content of the site feels a little niche.
All three platforms are still tiny and will need to grow quickly to survive — a social media platform only works if your friends are there. A pivotal number of users is 100 million. It took Facebook four years to reach that. Even briefly popular sites such as MySpace peaked at about 100 million.
Challengers don’t seem to be worrying Facebook yet; in his Senate testimony, Zuckerberg struggled to name one competitor. After all, rivals to Facebook have tried and failed over the years. Remember Ello? Secret? Mastodon?
But trust in Facebook has fallen dramatically, according to a recent study by the Ponemon Institute. Now, if ever, people might be ready to try something new.
Maija Palmer is the deputy editor of FT Special Reports
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