It seems like every few months there’s another Facebook killer that comes into play. Early in 2014, Facebook was done, abandoned by teens, a blow that would equate to a slow death by a thousand non-clicks as the effects of losing that young audience rippled through, demographic by demographic. Based on various studies since, the youth migration seems to have some base – teens sick of having their parents, (or worse: grandparents), commenting on their status updates and life choices were migrating to cooler pastures, places where the adults hadn’t yet taken up residence. That, and the rapid growth of Snapchat, was enough to have commentators rattling off obituaries for the world’s largest social network – which continues to grow every day. Ello is the latest name on everyone’s cursor tips, the latest answer to the question of ‘what’s the future of social media?’ But is Ello the Facebook killer, as alleged, or is it another case of mistaken identity?
First off, Ello is not the end of Facebook. That’s a huge call to make, and one which is only partially based in fact – and that call is largely inspired by the same reasons other networks have previously been labelled imminent successors to the Zuckerberg throne. Take Snapchat – Snapchat saw sudden and rapid growth because it catered for an audience demand that other social networks and apps had not yet met, that being the ability to send photos that would self-destruct and never be attached to your digital history. Amidst rising concerns about privacy, this was something people wanted, and they flocked to it as it provided something new, something fun, and most importantly, something they couldn’t get anywhere else.
This is a key element to consider – new social networks and apps, just like most other products and services, become major players for one of two reasons:
- They address a niche demand not catered for by other options
- They render the previous option obsolete by providing all the features of the incumbent, but better or with additional features
This is why Twitter succeeds alongside Facebook, because it offers something Facebook does not. While Facebook became more and more about your personal circles and staying in touch with family and friends, Twitter offered a new service – a customised news feed where you could easily scan through and read content relevant to your interests. Mix the two on Facebook and things get cluttered into your ever-busy newsfeed. The additional characters available in the Facebook update are more suited to the info you want to see from acquaintances, while the short messaging of Twitter is perfectly aligned to scan reading, like you would with newspaper headlines. The two services co-exist because Twitter addresses a niche demand that Facebook doesn’t, hence, Twitter can build its own, significant, audience.
You can say the same about all the major networks – Pinterest is very different to Instagram, which is more about personal photos, as opposed to pins of images you like. Reddit is very different from, say, Tumblr. While many networks are able to maintain smaller, dedicated audiences, the platforms that have thrived and built sizeable engagement have done so by differentiating themselves and providing facilities not available elsewhere. This is also a likely contributor to Google+’s ongoing challenges – G+ doesn’t offer any significant differentiation from other sites. While it’s visual focus is impressive, and when you spend some time with it you can find very focussed and engaged groups, the functionality is nothing you can’t get from other networks, aside from specific features like Hangouts on Air, but those smaller pieces are not enough to supersede the leader, so we’re not seeing Facebook’s audience migrate to G+ at any significant rate. Because why would they?
The best example of obsolescence is Facebook’s trampling of MySpace. Facebook offered all the functionality of MySpace, but better – more features, more options, a better user experience. When there’s a better option, people switch, like records to cassettes to CDs to MP3s. New features that cater for specific needs or offer improved quality and functionality render the former obsolete, and the challenger wins.
You could also argue that ‘niche demand’ might simply be an alternative location – some people might want to be on a different platform purely because everyone else isn’t, as in the case of teen migrations to sites where they can avoid prying eyes. The issue with that is exclusivity also impedes growth – the bigger a platform gets, the more users it attracts, you can’t have one without the other, making it difficult to scale the benefits of platform intimacy. Those smaller sites can definitely establish and maintain, but are unlikely to become challengers to the main players without significant innovation.
This is why I don’t see Ello as an adversary for Facebook. Yes, it addresses a niche demand – people are unhappy about Facebook serving them ever more ads, something regularly noted as a primary annoyance among users. But people don’t necessarily want a network with no ads – they want Facebook with no ads. We’ve already seen this, with several reviews of Ello noting that it’s functional, but there’s not a heap of engagement – and sure, the user base will increase in time, but Ello is not likely to defeat Facebook through obsolescence. And as a challenger in niche demand, addressing the issue of advertising won’t be enough to get people to abandon their Facebook friends and connections and groups. That’s a huge hill to climb for any competitor to Facebook, that people have spent years refining their newsfeeds and settings to build their Facebook experience just how they like – convincing a critical mass of people to make the shift will be a significant undertaking, and will likely only happen if Facebook mis-steps in a major way. The pressures of being publicly listed will stretch Facebook to continuously improve revenue streams, and that may, eventually, cause a break point, a gap where a competitor could make Facebook obsolete. But it would take a significant turn, a major switch in sentiment, likely caused by massive erosion of the user experience, in order to sway consumer sentiment enough. Thus far, through their acquisition strategy and continued focus on user experience, Facebook has managed this fairly well.
But this is where the ‘Ello as conqueror’ storyline fails. No doubt Ello will maintain an audience, and like most niche players, they’ll have a dedicated core fanbase that’ll keep the platform running. But in order to become a serious player, they need a large amount of users. Given the ongoing strategy to shun advertising, maintaining the balance of increasing audience and avoiding commercialisation will be a big challenge.
At core, Ello doesn’t offer enough alternatives to thrive through meeting a significant niche user demand, nor enough features to make the competition obsolete. These are the two measures to analyse any new players on – if they don’t meet one or the other, it’s unlikely they’ll rise up to challenge the established industry players.