Future Tense

The Search for the Anti-Facebook

Why rival social networks keep emerging—and keep failing.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
When it comes to Facebook challengers, the gap between hype and viability may be wider than it seems. Above, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

You’re tired of Facebook. I’m tired of Facebook. Your cousin, your grandmother, and Josh Miller’s teenage sister are tired of Facebook. Babies who haven’t even been born yet are already tired of Facebook. I’ve heard tell of far-off countries in which some people are not yet tired of Facebook. But it’s only a matter of time until they are.

Our grievances against the social network are myriad. We’re tired of the ultrasounds. We’re tired of the political rants by people whose politics differ from ours. We’re tired of chasing likes, tired of the self-promotion, tired of people being tired of our own self-promotion. And we’re tired of entrusting our thoughts, conversations, photos, and browsing habits to a giant corporation whose fiduciary duty is to help advertisers sell us stuff.

And yet: There’s a smartphone in your pocket and you have five minutes to kill. What else are you going to do—play Flappy Bird?

The search for an alternative to Facebook—a better, more humane place to post our photos and see at a glance what our friends and family are up to—has been underway for years. It has inspired countless flops and failed experiments, from Bebo to ConnectU to Path to App.net to the re-launched Myspace. Even Google, the most powerful tech company in the world, couldn’t build a serious Facebook rival.

Yet that hasn’t stopped others from trying. If anything, the buzz about would-be Facebook killers is reaching a new crescendo.

The latest great hope is Ello, a minimalist social network that aims to be a cooler, ad-free alternative to the corporate giants. It gained traction last month by allowing people to join anonymously at a time when Facebook was under fire for forcing everyone to use their real names. That practice particularly affronted transgender activists, many of whom became Ello early adopters. Despite an invite-only policy, Ello grew so fast that its servers were overwhelmed.

On Thursday, Ello announced that it has raised $5.5 million from venture capitalists. More interestingly, it followed that announcement by declaring itself a public-benefit corporation, signing a charter, and swearing off ads and personal data use forever. The moves vaulted the company to the top of Techmeme, a site that aggregates the day’s most-talked-about tech news, and earned it a fresh round of admiring coverage.

But history suggests that, when it comes to Facebook challengers, the gap between hype and viability may be wider than it seems. 

The concept behind Ello sounds a lot like that of Diaspora, another idealistic experiment that was touted as a Facebook rival when it launched in 2011. Diaspora’s turbulent rise and—well, failure to rise further, I suppose—is chronicled in Jim Dwyer’s new book, More Awesome Than Money: Four Boys and Their Heroic Quest to Save Your Privacy From Facebook.

Inspired by a lecture on Internet privacy, four NYU students hatched the idea for Diaspora in a computer lab and proceeded to raise more than $200,000 in a then-record-breaking Kickstarter campaign. The promise: a “decentralized social network” with open-source software. Users could start their own “seeds,” or personal servers, and maintain control over all the personal data they shared with their friends.

The company made headlines, attracted techies and privacy mavens, and even slipped a naughty word into the New York Times. And then it launched—with a slew of bugs and security problems. Things got worse when Google announced its own social network, with some similar-sounding privacy features. Finally, personal tragedy struck just as the project was unraveling. Supporters kept Diaspora alive, and it still exists today. But it never made a dent in Facebook’s dominance.

There were plenty of reasons Diaspora didn’t take off, Dwyer told me in a phone interview. But the biggest was probably the simplest: No matter how many people joined, it still felt like a “ghost town” compared with Facebook. (Sound familiar, Google Plus?) It’s awfully hard to build a social network with better features than Facebook—especially when the one feature people really care about in a social network is that all their friends are on it.

It doesn’t help that Facebook has managed to bake itself into the most popular sites all across the Web, and is beginning to do the same with mobile apps.

Despite Diaspora’s struggles, Dwyer doesn’t believe Facebook is invulnerable. Other upstarts might have a better chance, he speculated, if they could build a network that maps onto existing, real-world social groups. That’s what Zuckerberg did at Harvard and other Ivy League colleges before expanding Facebook to universities and then high schools across the country and the world.

“You can see from things like Ello, from Diaspora, that whenever some kind of alternative emerges, people stampede to it,” Dwyer said. “There’s a power to this idea.”

But what if the idea of an “anti-Facebook,” powerful though it might be in theory, is fatally flawed? That’s what Bradford Cross, co-founder and CEO of the social news platform Prismatic, has come to believe after years of struggling to build a vibrant online community of his own.

Social-media startups, Cross says, need to define themselves by what they are, rather than what they aren’t. “No one care about something that’s just ‘not Facebook.’ People care about having their needs met. Facebook is meeting a deep human need for people to stay connected to other people they care about—specifically, to stay connected to people they wouldn’t otherwise stay connected to.”

The social startups that have struck it big in the post-Facebook era have all started by carving out a different niche. That difference, Cross argues, can’t just be about a site’s back-end architecture or business model, as with Diaspora (an open-source Facebook) or App.net (a Twitter without ads). The product itself has to fulfill a fresh purpose for its users, like sharing snazzy smartphone snapshots (Instagram), networking and advancing their careers (LinkedIn), or showing off their taste in fashion, food, and design (Pinterest).

Trying to beat Facebook at its own game, Cross argues, is like “trying to beat Google in search.” Not only does Facebook have a huge head start, but it has vast resources with which to outmaneuver or overwhelm any direct competitors. And when all else fails, it simply buys them.

That doesn’t mean Facebook will rule social networking forever. The history of Internet companies is littered with the ruins of companies that once looked impregnable. But Facebook’s fortress today looks formidable from the front. Ultimately, it’s more likely to be toppled by someone sneaking in a side door with a very different model for online social interactions.

In short, projects like Diaspora and Ello will probably never live up to their hype as Facebook rivals. And yet the hype alone can make an impact even if the company never delivers—not by damaging Facebook, but by calling attention to its shortcomings and forcing it to respond and adapt.

Diaspora and Google Plus spurred Facebook to adopt a better array of privacy options. Ello’s success has already prompted it to soften its real-names policy. And on the same day that Ello announced its venture capital funding, Facebook launched a new app called Rooms that allows users to adopt pseudonyms and create their own chat forums. Wired is already calling it “the future of anonymity on the Internet.”

Meanwhile, erstwhile Facebook challengers like Instagram and WhatsApp are flourishing as standalone products under the Facebook corporate umbrella. So if you’re tired of Facebook, you do have options. It’s just that a lot of them happen to be owned by Facebook.    

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.