Facebook and the Rise of the Anti-Facebooks (#Ello and @joindiaspora)?


“Metcalfe’s Law points to a critical mass of connectivity after which the benefits of a network grow larger than its costs. The number of users at which this critical mass is achieved can be calculated by solving C*N=A*N²), where C is the cost per connection and A is the value per connection. The N at which critical mass is achieved is N=C/A.”

Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com, on network effects in social network growth.

The recent, rapid rise of Ello, the ad-free, pseudonym-enabling social network that launched in 2013 and is still in beta, is only the latest social network that’s sought to displace the social networking behemoth that is Facebook. A large part of this growth is due to Facebook’s recent crackdowns on pseudonyms on the network.

Despite small, yet exponential growth in a short amount of time, Ello isn’t the only social network boasting features–namely ad-free, privacy-enhancements–that take advantage of Facebook’s innovator’s dilemmaDiaspora*, a decentralized peer-to-peer, ad-free network that’s independently hosted on servers by “pod” admins, was launched in 2010 and has about 50k active users. (n.b.–I joined Diaspora a month after its 2010 launch and have 6 posts, the last of which was 3 years ago.) At that point, Diaspora* tried to seize on a Google crackdown on pseudonyms on its networks. And recently, Diaspora has resurfaced in the news, related to its adoption by ISIS due to its decentralized network. Not to be outdone by the latest Ello buzz in response to Facebook, Diaspora’s Twitter feed has seemed to set out on a PR initiative retweeting people buzzing about the positive attributes of its network.

There’s a problem here for the anti-Facebooks: Metcalfe’s Law. In essence, what Dr. Metcalfe’s quote above implies is that a social network can only be successful if it has enough people on it to spread the network to where its ubiquity outweighs its switching costs. In other words, Facebook managed to amass millions of users because it connected colleges, then alumni, then families, and so forth. At a certain point, the number of connections, as well as the amount of shared information made the user switching costs to other networks extremely high. In particular, other networks tended to emulate the style of Facebook (profile picture, status/microblog/newsfeed, friends list, etc) to a point when Google launched its own social network, Google+, many pundits suspected it was not a Facebook killer. (It wasn’t, but IMO, it served an absolutely different purpose, beyond a generic user profile page: gluing search to social via a user account and threading the data through there.) To date, more than 1.5 billion users are on Google+, but if you ask your friend, he’s not using it. (LinkedIn is very similar, but its tone and features are more career-based, allowing it to thrive more in the professional domain than in the personal domain.)

When Twitter launched in 2006, its medium developed its message through the 140 character limit imposed by structuring phone-based, SMS bursts. Twitter wasn’t about statuses, pictures, profile pages, etc… it was about how much one could say in a short clip of information. Brevity was/is the soul of Twitter’s wit and its eventual adoption was due to the control of messaging, rather than profile information–as was its advertising. New differentiation meant new adoption, albeit at a different pace from Facebook. As journalists started to adopt it to livetweet news as it happened, Twitter began to take on a life of its own. Its conversational nature due to asymmetric network effects started to develop in a different way than Facebook.

When Instagram launched in 2010, its cropped and filtered pictures with longer descriptions and extensive use of hashtags became a new social network that depended on photo sharing and discovery. This was different from posting a photo on Facebook or Twitter, as it overlaid a new dimension of social networking that neither of those networks were providing along with the medium. When Snapchat… When Tinder… You see where I’m going with this? A social network has to provide value to its users and a new social network has to provide enough value to its users wherein “paying” the switching costs of adopting a new network is more valuable than maintaining the sunk costs invested in the current, critical mass network.

So, what does this have to do with Ello and Diaspora? Well, while I admire their missions, their differentiating features aren’t currently identifiable as necessary, even sufficient, for users to “pay” the switching costs. Despite increased consumer demand for privacy, the masses don’t appear to view its value proposition as worth the tradeoff. Without enough users finding reason to make the switch, the network never reaches critical mass. As Morty Seinfeld used to say, “You don’t have the votes.”

Rogers Diffusion of Innovation CurveI’ve early adopted several new media/networks and watched some fail and others succeed–both in the short and long-terms; as a result I have to anecdotally agree with Metcalfe’s view. Users are complacent and mostly hesitant to take on the switching costs of a new network. At critical mass of a current network, broad adoption of a new network that jumps the “chasm” on Rogers Diffusion of Innovation curve requires a disruptive MEDIUM, not just FEATURE differentiation. This is why the networking aspect of Google+ has been dismal (but successful for other reasons) and why Twitter has frequently acted in tandem with Facebook, rather than against it. It’s why the ephemeralism of Snapchat is supplanting Instagram and MMS. It’s why Vine adoption is a struggle compared with Instagram Video.

I haven’t posted on Diaspora in 3 years. I understand it’s decentralized (P2P), but without peers on it, there’s no need to use oEmbed, formatting, or any other feature that makes it anything but “Yet Another Profile/Status Page”. I’ve posted on Ello, but it reminds me of Facebook with GIF functionality (and isn’t that essentially Tumblr?). We marketers are always looking for The Next Big Thing–the newest social media with the most users that will yield the most ROMI. Kudos to Ello and Diaspora for taking advantage of Facebook’s clunky haughtiness, but The Next Big Thing will be disruptive–it has to be. Ello and Diaspora are nice for the marginal niches taking advantage of the incremental feature creep (privacy) of a new network. But at even as they continue to grow, these networks are just plain not disruptive to cross anything more than the small chasm, let alone the big chasm. Ad-free, privacy-controlled networks just can’t get the ‘votes’ of mass adoption.