The bigger the role that social media plays in our lives, the more annoyed we get at its imperfections. Whether it’s personal abuse, invasive advertising, worries about privacy or just sheer information overload, people vent their frustration (on social media, naturally) in their tens of thousands, and many feel compelled to jump ship. Indeed, in the last quarter of 2017 the number of daily active Facebook users in the US dropped for the first time since the service launched in 2004. So it’s hardly surprising that whenever rumours start to spread of a new app claiming to address people’s annoyances with Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, there’s a rush to see what all the fuss is about.
Last week, that app was Vero. A photo and link-sharing service with simple and effective privacy controls, Vero originally launched back in 2015 and has floated off radar for the best part of three years. But a publicity drive by the company, coinciding with some growing disgruntlement with Instagram (the service Vero most closely resembles) saw a flood of new sign-ups.
“A false sense of connection left us lonelier than ever,” read Vero’s grandiose manifesto, echoing many people’s feelings about social media. The added promise of no adverts, enhanced privacy, timelines free of interference and no subscription fees for the first million users caused excitement to grow. By last weekend, the app had reached number 1 in many national app stores. Such was the demand for new accounts that overloaded servers and glitching apps were reported by people who wondered what might await them when the teething troubles finally dissipated.
Those who succeeded in joining up, however, may have found themselves thinking: “OK, what now?” With sparsely populated timelines and two or three friends, there would have been a strong impulse to shrug, shut the app and never reopen it. It’s a story that has played out many times over the last decade; in 2010 a group of New York students who were incensed by Facebook’s privacy policies announced a new service, Diaspora, which was quickly dubbed the “Facebook killer”.
In 2014, the same moniker was attached to Ello, a service that reasssured us that “You Are Not A Product”. Peach was touted as a replacement for Twitter in 2016, Mastodon a year later. Those are just four of many services that briefly seemed like the bright future of social media, but which failed to retain users and live up to the hype. Even Google struggled to create a social network that resonated with the public; Google+ still exists, but as people have deserted the platform in droves it has become more of an administrative tool for Google than a social tool for people to use.
The team behind Vero would have been aware of the steepness of the mountain that they were trying to climb, but they would also have been familiar with the complaints directed at Instagram over the past 18 months. The primary annoyance has been that photos no longer appear in the order they’ve been posted; Instagram now sifts pictures algorithmically, putting snaps that people are likely to find interesting at the top of their feeds.
This doesn’t sit well with completists, or those who resent the idea that content is being artificially filtered, or those who feel they might be missing out on something. For those people, “algorithm” has become a dirty word. Vero pitched its service directly at them, promising that “you see what has been shared with you when it has been shared with you”. But, as was quickly pointed out, that’s a promise very easily made by a small, unpopular service; the bigger problem is whether it will provide content worth looking at, never mind the order in which it’s presented.
Similarly, the promise of no advertising and no monthly fees led to questions over how Vero might make money, and whether those promises were compatible with its guarantee not to sell our information to third parties. As Vero’s small print was subjected to greater scrutiny, it emerged that companies would in fact be able to purchase advertisement space on the app, and that the privacy promise was disconcertingly vague: “Vero only collects the data we believe is necessary to provide users with a great experience and to ensure the security of their accounts.”
Unease developed into a backlash when people found that they couldn’t easily delete their accounts; further delving revealed that the app was built by a team of Russian programmers, and was the brainchild of Ayman Hariri, son of a former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafic Hariri and a Lebanese billionaire whose previous company had shut down in September 2017 due to mismanagement (and, according to a report by Bloomberg, $3.5bn of debt.) If Vero was trying to win the hearts and minds of people with a strong ethical compass, it was making a shaky start.
In a number of interviews over the past few days, Hariri has defended himself and his service, but that hasn’t stopped the hashtag #DELETEVERO gaining traction on the very social media services Vero was hoping to compete with. Vero effectively went from boom to bust within the space of a few days. But while those at Vero HQ lick their wounds, the episode raises a broader question of the unassailability of the big social media services and the futility of anyone trying to compete with them.
Vero boasted of somewhere approaching a million signups, but Instagram has 800 million and Facebook 2.2 billion. Any service that dares to encroach on the territory of Facebook or Twitter (or, for that matter, Amazon, Apple or Google) tend to be outplayed, outmanoeuvred or simply bought; Facebook is even said to have systems in place that identify competing technologies, with the aim of somehow killing them off.
There is much resentment at the way social media behemoths encroach and envelop, but it’s ultimately their size and reach that keeps people using them. When a new one comes along and its popularity appears to explode, that’s not necessarily the case. It’s usually curiosity rather than popularity. And curiosity, as Vero has found to its cost, can be a very fleeting emotion indeed.