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The Privacy-First Social Network: A Great Idea That Never Works

These efforts have tried to compete with Facebook and Twitter on ideological grounds. None have succeeded, but some are still alive and kicking.

The Privacy-First Social Network: A Great Idea That Never Works
[Photo: Rodion Kutsaev/Unsplash]

Riding a wave of negative sentiment against Big Tech, a new social network is here to set things right. Finally, you can share your photos, feelings, birthday wishes, and weekend plans without worrying about where all that data is going or what it’s being used for. This new service will safeguard your data, respect your privacy, and won’t even use advertising to make money.

The text above doesn’t refer to any social network in particular. Instead, it’s the gist of several privacy-conscious social networks that have come along in recent years. Whatever new ideas they brought to social networking were beside the point; these alternatives were here to cede the moral high ground. Incidentally, they tend to arrive right when Facebook or Twitter are in the midst of some scandal, or are implementing an unpopular new policy.

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In any case, these would-be slayers of social media giants have never done much damage. Too often, they’re brought down by bungled messaging, service interruptions, or some other significant setback. It doesn’t help that Facebook does not yet offer users a way to port their data to other social networks. But even if it does—and even if their execution were flawless—countering the network effects of a service like Facebook is a near-impossible task.

Here’s a rundown of the attempts we’ve seen so far:

Vero

Launch date: July 2015, though its popularity surged last February for reasons no one can quite explain. (Vero attributes it in part to an exodus of cosplayers from Facebook and Instagram.)

The pitch: A “Truly Social Network” with no advertising, a chronological news feed, and multiple friendship tiers for greater control over who sees what.

Early hype: A headline at NYMag.com called it an “Overnight Instagram Killer.” For a time, it was the top free download on the iOS App Store.

Business model: Vero plans to start charging new subscribers a small yearly fee—the equivalent of “a couple of cups of coffee”—within the next few months—but says that current subscribers will be grandfathered into free service for life. It also offers commerce features that allow it to get a cut of sales when members buy and sell stuff on its platform.

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The fallout: When Vero suddenly entered the spotlight, journalists and other observers raised questions about founder Ayman Hariri, whose family had run a now-defunct construction company in Saudi Arabia that reportedly left thousands of employees to live in labor camps without payment. (Vero says that he quit the business in 2013 and sold his stake in 2014, before its 2016 collapse.) Users also criticized the service for making account deletion difficult; the company has since made it a simpler self-serve process.

Current status: Vero is currently ranked 139th among social networking apps in the iOS App Store. A feature update in mid-March added a way to track how much time you’ve spent in the app in the interest of making sure you aren’t overdoing it. And at least one celeb—Susan Sarandon—recently left Facebook and signed up for Vero.

Mastodon

Launch date: Late 2016

The pitch: A shameless Twitter clone, but open-source, distributed across independent servers, and lacking any algorithms that mess with users’ timelines.

Early hype: “Could Mastodon be the social network to replace Twitter?” Wired U.K. asked. In one 48-hour period, the network grew by 73% to 41,703 users, The Verge reported, prompting a temporary pause on new accounts.

Business model: Founder Eugen Rochko accepts contributions and sponsorships on Patreon. The decentralized servers that make up the network operate independently, with the hosts assuming the server costs. (Some of them also take donations.)

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The fallout: Despite the hype, Mastodon’s sign-up process was tricky to grasp, requiring users to choose a server “instance” that hosted their posts. (These independently operated instances are the building blocks for a federated social network, rather than a centralized one, stored on a single company’s set of servers.) The temporary shutdown on Mastodon’s main instance didn’t help with momentum.

Current status: While Mastodon hasn’t gone mainstream, it’s still around, with 623,000 users across 1,600 instances in mid-2017. The site also reported about 37,000 new users in the last two weeks of March, Axios reports, and its Patreon page shows roughly $3,500 per month in donations.

Ello

Launch date: April 2014

The pitch: “You are not the product,” said Ello’s launch manifesto, which railed against larger social networks’ endless data collection and targeted advertising. Ideals aside, the general approach to profile pages and status updates was similar to Twitter and Facebook.

Early hype: Ello gained traction–particularly among artists and the LGBT community–right as Facebook started requiring people to use their real names. Many websites used the term “Facebook killer” in their headlines–including the Washington Post, Wired, and CNBC–but with a hefty dose of skepticism.

Business model: The original plan was to sell premium features, such as alternate background colors, but that approach never materialized.

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The fallout: Ello was initially invite-only, and it buckled under the unanticipated spike in demand. Some users also criticized the site’s lack of privacy controls. By the time Ello recovered, people’s curiosity had waned.

Current status: Ello has since found new life as a niche haven for artists, with about 625,000 of them on the site as of late 2017. Current CEO Todd Berger told TechCrunch last year that the site was never supposed to be a Facebook killer, though the manifesto against social media giants still stands.

App.net

Launch date: August 2012

The pitch: An alternate reality version of Twitter, with no ads and a platform that would empower developers to build their own social networking applications.

Early hype: “It could be the future of the web,” a Slate piece declared. A crowdfunding campaign to pay for early development hit its $500,000 goal with nearly two days to spare.

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Business model: Individual users could subscribe to App.net’s Twitter-like service for $50 per year, while developers could pay extra for tools to build their own services atop of the platform.

The fallout: Observers tended to fixate on App.net’s Twitter-like qualities, rather than its broader platform ambitions, and the prospect of charging $50 per year for the service led to allegations of elitism. Within two years, subscriptions dropped off, the founders moved on, and the service entered maintenance mode.

Current status: App.net shut down in January 2017. Strangely, the site now shows a message reading “app.net is on the way,” with a link to another defunct website.

Path

Launch date: November 2010

The pitch: Kind of like Instagram, but with no ads and a maximum of 50 friends per user.

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Early hype: Path’s launch received widespread coverage in part because of its founding team, which included former Facebook platform manager David Morin and Napster cofounder Shawn Fanning. Mashable called it “the anti-social network.”

Business model: Instead of advertising, Morin promised to sell premium features. A subscription service with extra sharing controls, stickers, and camera filters launched in 2013.

The fallout: Path never really took off in Western markets, and it didn’t help that the startup was caught uploading users’ address books without permission in 2012. (This led to an Federal Trade Commission fine and biennial privacy audits.) Still, the app became popular in Southeast Asia and was acquired by Daum Kakao, the makers of KakaoTalk, in 2015.

Current status: Path has continued to operate as a separate service after the acquisition, and remains available globally.

Diaspora

Launch date: September 2010

The pitch: A decentralized alternative to Facebook that gives users total control over their data, built by a small team of NYU students.

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Early hype: Consumerist‘s headline called Diaspora “The Facebook Slayer Where Protecting Your Privacy Is Their Killer App.” A Kickstarter campaign seeking $10,000 instead raised $200,000. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated to the project.

Business model: None, beyond donations. Individuals and groups can host their own “pods,” which make up the larger network.

The fallout: A Motherboard feature from 2012 describes immense pressure on Diaspora’s young founders to create a credible alternative to Facebook, and the initial pre-alpha release was riddled with security holes. The team was also beset by tragedy when cofounder Ilya Zhitomirskiy committed suicide in late 2011. In the end, the decentralized model itself, which required users to select and join a “pod” that connected to the larger network—just like Mastodon’s “instances” model—may have been too technical for mainstream users to grasp.

Current status: Although Diaspora’s founders reduced their roles in the project in 2012, the network is still running, with some pods hosting thousands of active users.

An Alternative To The Alternatives

Creating a private alternative to Facebook and other social media giants is hard, but that doesn’t mean users are powerless. Instead of seeking a complete replacement, a better option might be to reduce your Facebook usage, check your privacy settings, and use new tools to protect your privacy when Facebook is the only choice.

Mozilla, for instance, now offers a Firefox browser extension that automatically keeps you logged out of Facebook when you’re not actually visiting the site. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also offers a browser extension that curbs ad tracking, and some mobile browsers such as Brave block ads and tracking by default. Meanwhile, Wired has a helpful list of services that can replace Facebook in bits and pieces, such as Nuzzel for news, Signal for messaging, and Doodle for event coordination.

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Taking these steps might not feel as meaningful as joining some obscure new social network that claims to truly care about your privacy, but it could make a bigger difference in the long run.

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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