The Industry

Why Is Vero Going Viral?

The barely capable social app’s popularity suggests Facebook and Instagram may be facing a deeper backlash than we thought.

A hand holds a phone with the Vero app.
Living that Vero lifestyle. Vero

At long last, someone has come forward with a social network that is not Facebook. Or Instagram. Or Twitter. Or Snapchat. Or any of the other new social networks that have promised to not be Facebook over the years.

Needless to say, users are flocking in droves to—[squints at notecard]—Vero, the latest app to offer a social networking experience that differs in some intuitively appealing respect from all the others. Founded in 2015 by Ayman Hariri, the billionaire son of the assassinated Lebanese leader Rafic Hariri, Vero looks sort of like a night-mode version of Instagram, but with way fewer people on it. Or, as one critic rather uncharitably put it:

Just how big are the droves that are flocking to Vero? By Monday evening, the app had risen to the top spot in the iOS App Store, ahead of YouTube, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. (Note that the App Store rankings are based on an algorithm that emphasizes spikes in popularity, rather than the total number of downloads.) A Vero spokesperson said via email that the app is getting “very close to 1 million” sign-ups. This despite the fact that the app has been crashing constantly of late, which is either a testament to its sudden popularity or evidence that it’s poorly designed. Guess which narrative the startup is embracing.

Realistically, it’s probably both. For all its apparent popularity, Vero so far does not offer much reason to hope that it’s headed for a fate any different from that of previous “anti-Facebooks,” from Ello to Peach to Diaspora to to Google Plus. In the long run, we might remember Vero less for its substance than for the timing of its surge, and what that tells us about Facebook’s trajectory.

About those sign-ups: My attempts to register for the service on Monday were repeatedly met with an error message that said, “No connection to server. Please try again later.” (Editor’s note: Mine too.) Users have also reported being unable to send posts or load friends’ names. To judge by that App Store ranking, at least, those sign-up issues haven’t stopped people from trying.

Asked about the registration issues, a Vero spokeswoman said, “It’s not where we want it to be. We are frustrated ourselves for our users, but are addressing the issue and appreciate the incredible encouragement we’ve seen from the community.”

The big promise of Vero is that it’s ad-free, which sounds novel until you consider that Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and even Facebook were all ad-free when they started, too. Unlike those others, however, Vero says it will eventually move to a paid-subscription model. The cost: In the meantime, it’s offering free lifetime memberships to the first million people who sign up, which seems like a pretty ingenious way to skirt the network-effects problem, at least for a little while. It also creates artificial scarcity as people jostle to sign up before the company hits that milestone.

It’s not clear yet exactly what the company’s plan is for instituting the subscription fees once it gets there. “We will announce fairly soon what our plan is based on what we’re seeing,” the spokeswoman said, rather vaguely. One million users must have sounded like quite a lot when the app first launched, but it’s going to have to get way more than that to be even remotely viable as a rival to Instagram (more than 800 million), let alone Facebook (2.2 billion). Perhaps Vero should have said that first hundred million users would be free. Then again, it will eventually need to make money, no matter how big Hariri’s bank account may be. (Forbes estimates that he’s worth $1.33 billion.)

So what else is supposed to be different about Vero? As on pretty much any social network, you can share photos, along with links, text updates, and music recommendations. But the manifesto promises a “more authentic” social network that “lets you be yourself.” Specifically, it encourages you to group your connections into baskets such as “close friends,” “friends,” “acquaintances,” and “followers,” and lets you toggle the audience settings for each post. Again, that might sound novel, provided you’ve totally forgotten Google Plus. (No judgments if you have.) For that matter, even Facebook lets you do this.

Vero also promises a chronological feed that is not curated or manipulated by algorithms. It’s yet another feature that might sound nice until you remember that every other social network started out that way too. Even Twitter and Snapchat, which resisted algorithmic curation for years, have recently begun to embrace it—and, at least in the case of the former, found it leads to more engagement from users, not less.

The reality is that an uncurated feed will always become overwhelmed by the most prolific posters among your connections, regardless of whether you have any interest in what they’re sharing. Engagement becomes a purely linear function of how often you share, which only encourages people to share more and more. No wonder a bunch of “creators” and “influencers” who are finding themselves crowded out from Instagram seem to be turning to Vero for a fresh start. Admittedly, some seem more enthusiastic about it than others:

It’s also possible the app holds more appeal than I’m giving it credit for, once you get past all the bugs. The company said its latest surge of popularity has been driven at least in part by “the Cosplay community,” whose members “see the value in no-ads and quality photography.” Its spokeswoman added, “We’re focused on bringing on more communities.”

So far, however, Vero’s biggest achievement appears to be that it was in the right place at the right time to capitalize on the latest wave of disenchantment with more established social networks. It didn’t even have to launch at the right time—it merely had to be in existence, and obscure enough not have been widely tried and discarded yet. Between Facebook’s role in the Russian meddling in the 2016 election, its declining engagement, Snapchat’s unpopular new redesign, and Instagram’s increasing algorithmization, no wonder some users are willing to try out a replacement.

That a barely functional app founded in 2015 could rise to the top of the App Store in a matter of days in 2018 suggests the appetite for a viable alternative to Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat is greater than ever. Then again, we’ve thought that enough times in the past—remember Yo? Path? Mastodon? Sarahah?—that it’s worth asking whether the platform giants are really so vulnerable after all.