There is crazy buzz recently around Ello, a social network (still in Beta) whose charter is to respect the privacy of all users. The sudden interest in Ello was purportedly sparked in reaction to Facebook’s insistence that people use their actual name when using the network. Facebook has since reversed course, but the damage has been done.
It sounds refreshing to think that there is a Facebook alternative that cares about privacy and is free to use. Ello is indeed the anti-Facebook.
But the web is full of anti-Facebooks:
- App.net – subscription-based cloud social
- Google Plus – the ultimate Facebook killer, recently (significantly) de-emphasized by Google
- Snapchat – where college kids go to send Skitch photos with an expiration date
- Keek – the place where you can make longer, less creative Vines
- Instagram Video – the place where you can make longer, equally creative Vines
- Vine – the place where you can make Vines
- Viddy – where Mark Zuckerberg goes to make Vines
- Foursquare – where imaginary mayors reign and advertisers dare not go
- (I had another really great example and can’t remember it)
- Literally hundreds more (according to Wikipedia and a cursory Bing search)
So what is it about Ello that makes it such a viable alternative to Facebook? Nothing.
The concept that I want to explore is that of the disposable social network. How I define these are non-essential platforms that have social utility but if they shut down tomorrow wouldn’t really inconvenience you too much.
Utility is the differentiating factor between Facebook and nearly everything else. Let’s explore this idea in a little greater detail:
The Groundswell test
In Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s book Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, they discuss a litmus test for the viability of a social platform:
- Does it enable users to connect with each other in new ways?
- Is it effortless to sign-up for?
- Does it shift power from institution to people?
- Does the community generate enough content to sustain itself?
- Is it an open platform that invites partnership?
(hat tip to this blog for enabling my lazy research)
Right off of the bat, you can see that Ello doesn’t meet the very first criteria of enabling unique connections. I’ll explore this in a little greater detail later, but you can see that the overwhelming majority of social networks don’t fit the criteria, and the ones that do (Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter) in many cases fit the criteria because of the scale that they’ve grown.
In some ways the Groundswell criteria is self-fulfilling.
Imagine we’re teenagers and want to find a place to communicate. Facebook is out (because our parents monitor our stuff), Twitter’s out (because our uncle is inexplicably following us), so we connect on Ello, or Snapchat, or Keek, or Reddit, or we text. The social aspect of these platforms is for the most part disposable, so there has to be an additional utility and (spoiler alert) privacy is most certainly not a point of differentiation for most folks.
On Privacy of the Masses
If you know the name Glenn Greenwald you would be in a very small minority. He is the journalist that worked with Edward Snowden to release intelligence documents revealing domestic spying in addition to many other invasions of privacy. He wrote a very interesting book (No Place to Hide) about his experiences with Snowden and mining through the information that Snowden entrusted him with, that included pretty damning evidence of corporate collusion for domestic spying.
I don’t bring this up to make a political point or to ruffle any feathers, but I want to make this point: if nobody gives two shits about their privacy being invaded in the manner that the Snowden-leaked documents exposed, why would you believe that a majority of people would change their behavior because of relatively minor transgressions committed by Facebook?
I believe that the average Facebook user will continue to treat FB with the cognitive dissonance that they’ve treated similar messages about their privacy. On a lighter note…
Why Spotify is a good bellwether for freemium monetization
Spotify isn’t profitable. It has high overhead in the form of licensing fees and its freemium model (despite featuring advertising) doesn’t make up the difference. It’s essentially the same story with Pandora. You may wonder what the correlation to Ello is?
Ello is funded (right now) by investors, but intends to capitalize with a freemium model where certain premium features are offered to offset their costs. I don’t know of an example of any large social network that has ever been successful with this model (possibly LinkedIn although I think that’s a dangerous comparison because LI has so much more utility than the Ellos of the world).
We can look at two recent examples of scaled social networks that needed to take extreme measures to monetize: Facebook and Twitter. You could even use Foursquare as an example as they were so tapped that no one would give them any more money without some pretty extreme adjustments. Ask yourself the question whether any of these networks could sustain themselves using a freemium monetization model, and I think the Foursquare example is the best example that they could not.
Ello (and similar social networks) are cool, but as they scale they are increasingly dependent upon investors. Which leads to my next point….
Why people invest in stuff
People invest in stuff to make money.
When people give money without expectation for a return this is called a “donation.” Ello (any social network save app.net is in the same boat) took in nearly a half a million dollars in seed funding from FreshTracks Capital. At some point they are going to be expected to make that money back, and if freemium monetization doesn’t work there is one model that has worked for scalable social: the Facebook model.
The trouble with replacing Facebook is that any social network that achieves that scale is probably going to become Facebook. Because people invest in stuff to make money, and scale costs money.
Facebook, LinkedIn (and maybe Twitter) are not disposable
Let’s re-examine the Groundswell criteria in relation to Facebook to understand why Facebook is the closest think to a permanent social network that we’ll see for the foreseeable future:
- Does it enable users to connect with each other in new ways? Yes. Maybe it seems pedestrian NOW, but when it eclipsed MySpace it brought far more people to social platforms than were previously using them.
- Is it effortless to sign-up for? Yes.
- Does it shift power from institution to people? It did and does.
- Does the community generate enough content to sustain itself? Yes and yes.
- Is it an open platform that invites partnership? Yes.
In respect to how it enables connection, I harken back to a data set that Stephen Wolfram developed from a million Wolfram Alpha users who volunteered their Facebook data for analysis. I wish he’d update this, but I can’t imagine that the results would be much different to describe Facebook’s utility in our everyday lives.
Wolfram shows that the average Facebook user has over 300 connections, three to four clusters of friends, all cluster members (generally) are within the same peer group.
Think about that for a minute. You have hundreds of friends, mostly people the same age grouped into three or four social circles. When you’re in high school or college, this probably isn’t atypical but after a certain age Facebook is likely the only place that you will be able to connect with these people. You could treat Facebook as disposable, but if you ever want to catch up with your old high school buddy or stalk the girlfriend who got away, odds are you’re doing this with Facebook.
When Pew Internet described how Facebook was out of favor with teenagers, they also described that teenagers still had accounts. And given the Wolfram data, I think the fact that Gen Z is still integrated with Facebook as a utility may serve to perpetuate Facebook’s dominance for the future.
I think the business and recruiting niche that LinkedIn has tapped into puts it in the category of non-disposable, and maybe Twitter too. Although many platforms could perform the same function as Twitter (Google Plus most notably) if it were to disappear tomorrow.
Here’s my point….
I have no doubt that Ello is cool (judging by the screenshots that I’ve seen and the emails that I’ve received noting that I’m on the list that grows by tens of thousands every hour). What I want to point out is that any emergent social network is superfluous until it offers a transcending utility.
Everything is cooler than Facebook, but no social platform is as powerful as Facebook. That’s why they continue to agitate users by tinkering with their monetization and why everyone continues to use Facebook despite.
Thinking of most social networks as disposable should be helpful for marketers. Recognizing that with very few exceptions an audience can be fluid between platforms creates a need to verify audience constituency for any platform on a regular basis. This month there might be a huge crowd on Ello, next month they may migrate to Oodbye.
In any case, be wary of the next big thing. There have been plenty of “next big things” before it.
PS – I was just kidding about doing a search with Bing. It was an inside joke for me only. Everytime I read that I giggle a little, because “Bing.”