The mainstream media seems aflutter about a new “alternative” social media network named Ello that they believe is destined to overtake Facebook.
What is Ello? Simply put, Ello is a new social network that claims to be oriented towards privacy and positions itself against social networks, namely Facebook, that advertise to their users. Currently in an invite-only trial phase, Ello attracted some media attention after some Facebook users rebelled against Facebook’s “real name” policy and flocked to an alternative, the beneficiary of which was Ello.
The “Next Facebook” Trope
We regularly hear stories like this from media outlets desperate to dig up a tech story: “Will this new thing be the next Facebook?” Or we hear reports of droves of users leaving Facebook. And yet, in truth, Facebook continues to grow and now has 829 million daily active users.
To be sure, we have seen a variety of new social networks enter the scene and prosper over the past several years. Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Snapchat have all found a following in the online community. But these social media services either serve a different purpose from Facebook or do something for a niche audience that Facebook cannot. LinkedIn is a social network strictly for business professionals. Twitter and SnapChat allow for pithy, fleeting bursts of communication. Pinterest is great for gathering pictures from around the Web so folks can find new ideas. Instagram is primarily for sharing pictures taken on mobile phones and has editing and filtering options not found on Facebook. Some of these social media platforms have also found newer and better ways to integrate themselves into the mobile smartphone experience than Facebook has. The point that needs to be made is that none of these social networks positions itself as a full “alternative” to Facebook. And I would expect that most active users on these other social networks also spend time on Facebook (as also seems to be true for Ello, for now).
“Alternatives” to Facebook — in other words, social platforms that do pretty much the same thing as Facebook with “wall”-style personal profiles and friend networks — are already out there. For example, Myspace is still chugging along (though it seems their infamous founder Tom has found his way to Ello). And Google+ is also a suitable alternative. But Facebook remains on top.
What would it take to Overtake Facebook?
In order to replace Facebook, or even be a formidable “alternative,” a new social media service will have to outdo Facebook at its own game. A competitor that wants to attract Facebook’s consumer base will, in true free-market form, either need to A) provide an equivalent service for cheaper, or B) provide an indisputably better service.
At first glance, with Facebook being free, it seems that option A is irrelevant. However, not all costs have to be purely monetary. Being advertised to or having one’s profile data crawled is itself a cost, particularly to those who are concerned about privacy and about who might have access to that information in this day and age.
Nevertheless, to my knowledge, we have not seen privacy-oriented startups of any ilk ever make much of a dent in the big online service giants. Email clients that promise not to screen your emails have not made any dent in Google’s and Yahoo’s email service domination. Most of those private email clients have fees attached, and most people are okay being “Scroogled” and enduring targeted ads if it means the service is free. And we have yet to see a privacy-oriented search engine, such as DuckDuckGo, make much headway against the big search engines. Evidently, search engine performance tends to outweigh the value of extra privacy for the vast majority of Web users. (Sometimes the Internet giants do feel the pressure and improve their own privacy features to stay ahead of the competition, so there are benefits to these small competitors even if they don’t themselves make it big.)
More important will be option B, creating a better service. The “next Facebook” would have to do what Facebook does, but even better. Facebook replaced its predecessors, specifically Myspace, mainly because, in my opinion, Myspace was filling up with spam and junk and also had a younger demo that users eventually felt they outgrew. Facebook, in essence, especially in its earlier days, did the same thing as Myspace but got rid of the spam issue and developed a cleaner and more ageless interface that appealed to a wider demo, and they have been growing ever since.
Facebook’s Virtually Insurmountable Community Value
But the enduring value of Facebook does not include only its features but also its already-established community. Because Facebook started becoming popular in 2006, when more and more of the country was getting online, Facebook grew as the Web grew. Facebook now has almost a billion active users, and pretty much everyone we know is on Facebook. Our Facebook accounts now link us to our family members (no matter their ages) and a whole collection of friends that span across our lives these past several years, as well as to our favorite organizations, businesses, and brands. I expect that most all Facebook devotees would be hesitant to abandon Facebook since it would mean also abandoning the years they have spent building their profiles and friend networks and starting all over. Even Google+, with the weight of the world’s most popular website behind it, has not dethroned Facebook. It will be difficult, indeed darn near impossible in my opinion, for any social network to lure users away from the extensive communities they have built for themselves on Facebook.
So while there is certainly always room for new social media services that provide new forms of communication for new purposes, becoming the next giant comprehensive social network akin to Facebook will be no easy feat. The new social network will have to be so much better than Facebook that it would make sense to start all over again. And while nothing’s impossible, that’s hard to imagine.