New Social Apps Could Chip Away at Facebook’s Empire

With Facebook under fire, could a new social network rise from the ruins?

Facebook’s (FB) scandals have caught up to its executives and to its shareholders, who have collectively lost billions since the company disclosed slowing user growth and heavier security spending in July. More recently, media reports have painted a picture of negligence, obfuscation and dysfunction in Facebook’s highest ranks, leading to a growing number of investors calling for radical changes at Facebook.

But criticisms of Facebook long predate the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as does its diminishing appeal for certain users. Despite Facebook’s blandly articulated mission of “bringing the world closer together,” for years critics have accused the service of everything from violating children’s privacy to fostering depression. And along with that, entrepreneurs have sought to build alternatives that bring users “closer together” minus the nasty side effects.

“Looking at Facebook and what it was, it became this vast empty experience of content and advertising, and it’s even more so today,” said Bruce Fikowski, who created a community-based social app called GetAssist that makes revenue by charging for business memberships.

Several ‘anti-’ have emerged over time, each purporting a more secure or authentic way to connect: Diaspora, Ello, Mastadon, among others. Many have found their own niche, but none has come close to toppling the dominance of Facebook in serving up various functions all at once: photo and content sharing, messaging, and the advertising that made Facebook a profit machine.

That could be changing, and if it does, the shift may be largely generational. The declining popularity of Facebook among millennials and Gen Z is well-documented, with only half of teenagers reporting that they used Facebook in September 2018 compared with 71% in 2015 according to Pew Research. Alphabet’s (GOOGL) Youtube and Snap’s (SNAP) Snapchat are the platforms that teens reporting using most often, followed by Facebook’s own Instagram.

Further evidence of Facebook’s declining appeal is a dramatic shift in ad spend towards Instagram as engagement with Facebook’s News Feed has declined, according to Socialbakers, which tracks digital ad spending: “Since the social currency for brands is engagement, we see this as also being a key factor affecting this shift in spend towards Instagram,” said Yuval Ben-Itzhak, Socialbakers’ CEO.

If not Instagram, where are younger users directing their attention spans? A bumper crop of newly popular apps could provide some clues. While Facebook-owned apps have long topped the charts in all-time downloads since at least 2010, when Facebook first released its first smartphone app; eventually, it was joined by Facebook’s Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. In 2018 however, the video sharing app Tik Tok — where users post lip-syncs and other short-form video, edged out Youtube, Messenger and Instagram as the most-downloaded iOS app worldwide according to data provided by App Annie, a global provider of mobile insights. More recently, even lesser-known apps are surging such as Imo, a messaging app that rocketed to the #1 spot during the month of September. More recently, Zepeto, a social media app based around avatars and popular among teenagers, shot up to the top spot on iOS. Other new services have been launched on the theory that younger users prefer to connect around creative self-expression rather mindless updates or reshares: Another called Vero, which has gained popularity among photographers and other artists, saw a surge in new users around the same time as Cambridge Analytica according to the company.

There are good reasons why no one service has managed to slay the Facebook beast: Its of apps, notably the advertiser-friendly Instagram, keeps a range of demographics in the fold for now.

Perhaps no one single event — or app — can blow up Facebook’s empire. But if the past few months have proved anything, it’s that Facebook is far from bulletproof.

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