The No. 1 social networking app in the country right now isn't Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. It's not Pinterest or WhatsApp. It's something called Vero, and the app's popularity is mystifying when you consider that a large proportion of people who've tried to use it were thwarted by crashes, slow-loading data, and other technical performance issues.

Why are so many people evidently keen to put up with these snafus? Because Vero presents itself as the remedy to the ills wrought by other social media platforms -- and because the startup has hit on a fairly clever gimmick for driving an initial surge of interest.

Unlike all the social apps name-checked above, Vero will charge users to become members rather than selling their data to advertisers. Vero's manifesto (yes, they call it that) says, "Our subscription model will allow us to keep Vero advertising-free, and to focus solely on delivering the best social experience instead of trying to find new ways to monetize our users' behavior or tricking them back into the app with notifications."

The clever twist: The first 1 million people to join will get lifetime memberships for free. Cue the stampede. (The company also says it will make money via an e-commerce feature that allows users to buy items featured in posts, generating a transaction fee.) 

Vero isn't the first attempt to battle Facebook with an emphasis on privacy and ethics. Remembe the Great Ello Craze of 2014? Like Vero does now, Ello wanted to be a social network that was fully incentivized to serve users rather than advertisers. But any paid-upfront model is disastrous for a social media company, which needs to grow rapaciously in order to be worthwhile to users, and therefore can't have friction in the signup process. Would you continue paying to be part of a social network if your friends and family balked at joining?

"When it comes to social networks," technology analyst Ben Thompson wrote during the Ello buzz, "advertising is clearly the best option: after all, a social network is only as good as the number of friends that are on it, and the best way to get my friends on board is to offer a kick-ass product for free. In other words, the exact opposite of the feature-limited product that Ello is proposing." (Ello still exists, but only after pivoting to artists.)

Vero, to its credit, isn't pursuing Ello's freemium approach. But it's still arguably doomed because social networks that charge users directly are fighting such a steep uphill battle. Letting a million users sign up for free is clever, and will help mitigate the insurmountable network effects, but probably not enough to allow Vero to take off. Especially since Vero doesn't appear to have density in any particular community (although the company did tell Slate that its recent growth is partially due to cosplayers).

Snapchat, like Facebook before it, was able to grow cluster by cluster using college campuses. Snapchat also had utility even if you only used it to message one person, as long as you were sending something that you wanted to vanish quickly. A genuine Facebook challenger will most likely look like Snapchat: Product innovation orthogonal to Facebook's own features and advantages.

Really, what's most notable about the Vero phenomenon is the sudden burst of energy that the company set off among potential users. People are increasingly upset with Facebook and other social media platforms, and Vero tapped into that. Facebook hasn't been the new kid on the block for a while now, and the company's ability to influence politics and culture without oversight has become worrisome.

In particular, Americans want to know how Facebook's News Feed algorithm and its advertising features affected the 2016 election. Members of the media are concerned by the company's lack of transparency, and that concern is compounded by habitually murky communication from Facebook executives.

None of the discontent is completely new, but it appears to be growing. Facebook users' frustration finally showed up in its business results: "Facebook's daily active user base in the U.S. and Canada fell for the first time ever in the fourth quarter," Recode reported in January, "dropping to 184 million from 185 million in the previous quarter."

People don't want to be caught in ever-more-polarized filter bubbles (except when they're voting with their clicks). They're sick of meaningless notifications and other types of engagement-hacking, which Vero was savvy to call out.

So who's next? Which startup will take Facebook's place as the social network of record, ubiquitous in contemporary American life? It might have been Instagram, if Facebook hadn't acquired its growing rival. It might have been Snapchat, but currently Evan Spiegel isn't executing on the level that he would need to in order to dethrone Mark Zuckerberg.

If Facebook and Snapchat were going head to head just based on product innovation, it might be a different story. But the business side of, well, business: That's also important. Companies have to fit the market as it stands, not as they think it should be.

Published on: Feb 28, 2018