And some advice for anyone who wants to try.
BREAKING NEWS: [Platform X] has just launched a new social network. With Facebook’s reputation at an all-time low, the new company is betting that millions are ready to make the switch. blah… blah… blah…
But despite the hype over each new Platform X (Diaspora, Ello, Path, MeWe, Minds, Vero, etc.) a mass exodus never occurred.
Sure, Snapchat and TikTok scooped up younger people with totally new experiences (ephemeral messaging and rapid-fire videos). But even though Facebook has copied these features, these features aren’t Facebook.
The core of Facebook for the past 16 years has been simple: you post things (usually text/images) and your friends (usually people you know in real life) can have a conversation about those things.
And I like it. Sometimes I don’t want to, but shit. I like it.
Because, well, like a lot of the people I’ve met throughout life. I like staying in touch with them, and I especially like the banter between them.
But I really don’t like the company behind Facebook. So, like a lot of people, I’ve been cautiously-optimistic each time a “Facebook-killer” emerged.
…And they all failed.
Why? I’m pretty sure there are two main reasons:
A social network is only a social network if your friends are on it.
Facebook was able to grow slowly because it started within self-contained communities (college campuses) and expanded out from there. But a new platform doesn’t have that luxury.
If we’re all supposed to abandon Facebook and start using a new platform, we want to know that most of our friends will be using it too.
But nearly every “Facebook-killer” had a bottleneck. You either had to join a wait-list, or jump through confusing hoops (e.g. setting up a server).
The result was the same. Post something. Hear crickets. 🦗
After a week or two of crickets, people simply forgot about the new platform and went back to Facebook.
But even when we were lucky enough to get a lot of our friends signed up in the first couple of weeks, there was another problem: it wasn’t the same.
There were either core features missing, or the UX was just very different.
Want to respond to your friend’s post with a meme? Oh sorry, you can’t do images in comments yet. (We’re working on it!)
Trying to tag a friend in a post? Sorry, can’t do that either. (Coming next year!)
Trying to post something that all your friends will see? Oh sorry, you need to post it to all the servers your friends are in. (Good luck figuring that out.)
Obviously, it would be impossible to launch a platform that has 100% of the same features as a platform that’s been around for nearly two decades, but there is a core experience that people have come to expect.
If you can’t give it to them, they’ll leave.
Having worked on software teams for the past 14+ years, the problems I just outlined are not that surprising. They are a natural outgrowth of a few (no pun intended) meta-problems with the tech industry in general:
“Lean startup” is basically a religion in Silicon Valley. It’s a way of approaching software development that starts with a “minimum viable product” (a stripped-down version with very few features) that you test with a small number of users before deciding what you’ll actually build.
But Facebook’s features are already in use by billions of people! They don’t need to be carefully tested. It just needs to work out of the box on day one.[^1]
[^1]: Note: This may seem crazy to software people, but this is how all non-software products work! You don’t sell a half-built car and add the wheels later.
Startup founders generally want to make new things, not copy existing things. I sympathize with this. It’s not fun to reinvent the wheel.
But again, we already know what works here. Making the experience different will just increase the friction of adoption. New features (and a more humane UX) can be added later, once millions of people have migrated.
This is real. It’s expensive and difficult to build a product that can support hundreds of millions of users within weeks of launch.
But your lifeboats need to have the same capacity as the ship you’re evacuating, or it’s not going to work. It’s an essential cost.
People who choose to work on Facebook-alternatives are (understandably) very critical of Facebook and everything it represents.
So they commit to building an open-source, fully-distributed, data-portable, interface-customizable, offline-capable, censorship-proof platform.
And while these are all noble goals, prioritizing them can get in the way of duplicating the simple experience that people are used to. If it can only be used by techies, that’s not a Facebook-killer, that’s Github.
Facebook-killer attempts have typically had one of three models:
- Build a user base with VC money and monetize your users later. (If you do this, you’re not killing Facebook, you’re just becoming Facebook.)
- Charge users to use it. (This creates a significant bottleneck, slowing the rapid growth you need for it to feel like a real social network.)
- Make it a free, open-source project run by volunteers. (This usually means that it’s clunky, hard to use, and only for techies.)
But there’s a fourth way: the Wikipedia model.
Wikipedia is one of the biggest, most-trafficked websites on the internet, yet they are a nonprofit. They don’t have advertising. They exist on donations.
A Facebook-killer led by a team with a strong track-record could easily raise millions in donations (from rich donors and the crowd) for their first phase of building. Then it could survive off of recurring donations, ethical transactions (e.g. fees on commerce, business pages, etc), and maybe even government grants/subsidies (since it would essentially be a public utility).
It’s amazing how (comparatively) little money you need to keep something going when you aren’t trying to make investors mega-rich.
- Ditch lean startup thinking. Don’t launch until you’ve built a complete product. Just build it, do rigorous bug-testing, and launch.
- Wait to innovate. Save your cool new features until millions of people have switched over. Until then, make it pretty identical.
- Invest in scaling. Ensure that people can join the moment they are invited. Don’t make them wait. Don’t make it hard.
- Make it for the masses. It shouldn’t require technical skill to use, even if that means it’s less ideologically pure.
- Make it a nonprofit. And create systems for community ownership. Profit-maximization isn’t the only way to keep valuable things alive.
Even though nobody has yet to successfully kill Facebook, Facebook is doing a pretty good job of killing itself.
The company has announced they are essentially burying the newsfeed so it can become a TikTok clone. People are already leaving the platform in droves, and Meta itself seems to be abandoning it in favor of the “metaverse.”
I’d love to be 100% happy about this, but I’m not. I already miss seeing posts and comments from friends who have (understandably) deleted their accounts. It feels like it’s a couple years away from being a complete ghost town. And my dance moves just aren’t good enough for the TikTok era.
So, who’s going to step up and make this happen? It’s the perfect time to create a social network of, by, and for the people.