By Raghav Singh, Director Korn Ferry Products
When Google announced it was shutting down Google+ most people likely asked “Google what?” Even Alphabet, with more money than God, was unable to keep the network from being anything more than an also ran. Few will mourn its demise. So can anything take on Facebook as a platform for digital marketing? Some are trying, mainly hoping to capitalize on the social media giant’s recent travails with data privacy and its data sharing practices. Some that are generating some buzz are Mastodon, Blockstack, Vero and Steemit.
Mastodon is an open source network that’s more of a competitor to Twitter than Facebook, but claims to offer benefits that people who are disenchanted with either network may appreciate. It has no user tracking or targeted ads, and offers users full control over their data. Unlike Facebook, the network allows its community to make the rules of what gets posted. Users can create smaller networks, called instances, each of which has its own laws. The network places no restrictions on what is allowed or disallowed in any instance and users choose for themselves which instance they want to join, and select from a wide range of privacy and anti-harassment settings.
Built on a blockchain, Blockstack describes itself as “a new world of apps that let you own your data and maintain your privacy, security and freedom.” Blockstack is more of a platform than a network that allows users to have complete ownership of their data and choose how to share it. Tools are provided to allow users to verify that any data they share is only reaching people they trust. With user identities encoded in a blockchain there is, in theory, an indelible record of each user identity so no malicious operators can access the data of any user.
Vero is the first social network to charge users for access. Membership is free at this time, but eventually a subscription fee will be required to stay on it. There are no ads and no data collection on user activity.
Another open-source social network, that’s unique among social networks because it pays users to create content. Users can earn crypto tokens, similar to any other cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, based on the popularity of their posts. Mainly because of this incentive Steemit claims to have over 10 million visits per month.
Do Facebook Users Value Privacy?
Most emerging social networks focus on privacy and giving users control over their data. But the value of that appears to be grossly overestimated. Based on Facebook’s recent profits it appears that most users have shrugged off concerns about privacy and the company’s data practices. People that claimed to be outraged by revelations of what Facebook did with their data are reminiscent of Captain Renault, the police chief of Casablanca in the movie of the same name. In one iconic scene he claims to be shocked that gambling is taking place in a cafe, while pocketing his winnings at the same time. Just how much of their subscription fee to Facebook does anyone think goes to pay for the infrastructure and employees of the company? In its IPO filing the company stated that “We offer advertisers a unique combination of reach, relevance, social context, and engagement to enhance the value of their ads.”
David and Goliath?
Do any of the newer social networks pose any threat to the hegemony of Facebook? Though gaining in popularity, these networks collectively have a tiny user base amounting to less than 5 million users today. Steemit’s 10 million monthly users are insignificant compared to Facebook’s 1.5 billion daily users. That could change but getting users to switch will not be easy. Facebook users place a high value on what it adds to their lives. By one estimate the average Facebook user would require more than $1000 to deactivate their account for one year. Given that amount, if all of the network’s membership of two billion users took the money it would cost more than two trillion dollars a year to keep them all off the network.
If privacy is the main benefit of joining another network, then most users don’t appear to care enough about it to make the switch. The fact that these other networks are open-source and built on a blockchain means nothing to the vast majority of people. The “power to the people” mantra may sound appealing but it has little relevance to users that simply want a place to interact with others. Steemit’s payments to users is an interesting idea, but cryptocurrencies have dubious value and are a long ways from gaining widespread acceptance.
There’s little to suggest that Facebook’s dominance is under any threat at this time. The largest social network aside from Facebook is WeChat with over a billion users. But its user base is exclusively in China, and much of its success can be attributed to the Chinese government’s ban on Facebook in the country. WeChat’s English language version has gained virtually no traction anywhere.
For those engaged in digital marketing there little reason to consider alternatives to Facebook. Users like it and plan to stay. Privacy concerns voiced by regulators will be addressed. The company has already announced an option for users to delete their browsing history. That doesn’t mean the company will stop creating profiles of users, but then most users don’t appear to mind that it does.