By Constance A. Dunn, GHOST ROCK co-CEO
The views in this article belong to the writer.
It's cliche to begin an article with "we live in interesting times." Let's spice it up a little - we live in remarkable times.
In the last few days, we witnessed ordinary folks send hedge fund managers into a frenzy, losing billons for established financial institutions and allowing a handful of "everyday plebs" to become millionaires overnight. This did not happen on Facebook or Twitter. This happened on Reddit. It happened in friend and family circles through emails, private messages, text, and platforms you've never heard of. The rise of alternative platforms is here.
Yesterday, I read an article about Facebook's "better than expected" 2020 Q4 being the "calm before the storm". In 2020, Facebook, and its affiliate companies, subsidiaries, etc., are on the outs with just about everybody. Even the powers inside the behemoth are not optimistic despite their surprise Q4. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal that landed Zucks in front at a congressional hearing, to election fraud accusations, and censorship in hopes of avoiding government regulation for an increasingly inactive user base - the behemoth is on its knees.
We're marketers. It's in our job description to choose the best platforms for our clients to reach their customer/client base as effectively as possible. Social media is very effective. A user who takes part in the platform gives their data away freely, if not necessarily knowingly. We can target the user by age, location, online behavior, interests, politics, income, and family size. No, we can't see your personal information, but we know your habits and who you are. There are companies who target your IP address, which means we send targeted advertisements to your screen at your home or office address directly.
Fortunately, the bots that target aren't that smart... yet. They often get it wrong. For example, they have deduced that I am a fan of heavy metal and gardening. I cannot stomach heavy metal and nobody kills plants faster than yours truly. How the FB bots came to this conclusion lies in a string of likes and follows for friends' various pages that aren't necessarily to my taste, but I support them because they're my friends' creative and business endeavors. Support for one another outside our own interests is something AI can't quite wrap its metal around.
What this means is that the real people in my office, often this is me, have to trick the bot. I have to dig deeper into a client's base audience. More research, more watching, more clever targeting.
Here's the rub. Bot or human - people don't like being watched. They don't want their behavior logged, tracked, followed. I don't like it either. Y'all are boring.
Yes, we work with small to mid-size, often family-owned businesses that most people want to support. Yes, people willingly give their data to these platforms by logging on and playing the game. But does that justify anything? I'm not sure it does.
Many company discussions revolve around the evitable decline of the social giants based on data collection alone. Facebook, once the go to of the young and irreverent, is now a joke for anyone under 25 (strike that, 30). Instagram is only slightly younger, but often more detached. TikTok is the future, but comes with baggage - very large, very heavy baggage. Twitter is good for witticisms and platitudes, comeback culture, making it home to comedians, journalists, and politicians. The everyday folks tend to stay away. Pinterest showed promise in 2019 for advertisers, but remains a fringe platform for planning "your best life" in a passive way that does not require you to do anything to better your life.
At Ghost Rock, we've seen a drop in engagement on Facebook and Instagram on every single business page and profile since 2018. We have seen policies go into effect on Facebook that raise the cost of advertising for the small business user ever so slightly over time, and big upsets with algorithm updates. Algorithms that require businesses to increase budgets by 50% to get the same results. We have seen users drop off. That doesn't mean that they leave the platform. It's a nuisance to shut down your Facebook account. Many people don't bother, they just let their profile go silent. We see more silent profiles every day.
Let's face it, social media has become like standing in a room with a thousand people all shouting at each other at the same time while promotional models hand out samples of Red Bull with dead eyes and Vaseline smiles.
Facebook is dying at the ripe ole tech age of twelve. It will take its little sister Instagram with it. And while it is still the largest social network, and we are obliged to place ads on these platforms, we see the signs.
Don't Fear the Reaper
Almost everyone can agree that social media hasn't been a good thing for most people. It plays on dopamine - the same neurotransmitter that keeps people hooked to other unhealthy addictions. We've witnessed the damaging effect of misinformation, the divisiveness that has developed between once friends, the list goes on. But we still use it, in the same way we have trouble letting go of any vice once it's on the market.
The human proclivity for exploration once triggered cannot be stopped. We keep coming back to try again. Maybe this time we'll do it better. Maybe this time we'll be smarter, safer, more savvy. And so, we are entering the rise of the alternative social platforms.
Just like every human foray into new technology, it is two steps forward, one step back. The latest step back being the Parler debacle. Two questions 1) Who thought it would be a good idea to make a mirror of an outrage filled, vitriolic platform like Twitter?, 2) Who, with any knowledge of tech, would house their "free speech" platform on a rented server?
Let's set aside all that for a moment and focus on other platforms that haven't made headlines, but are quietly trucking along, protecting your data. There are three key traits that make these platforms more private: 1) open source code, 2) blockchain technology, 3) self-hosted server. Not all platforms use all three.
Mastodon is a collection of communities that interact using short form content, links, etc. It is self-hosted, open source, and decentralized. You may choose to take part in the main discussion page or create your own community.
Karma is essentially an Instagram clone that deals in cryptocurrency. Your profile looks just like it would on Instagram. Likes and shares earn you tokens that can be used within the app or cashed in for real money through a crypto exchange. Approach this platform with caution. It deals in money for likes. And we all know what counting likes does to someone's mental health.
Diaspora was an early adopter of decentralization and self-hosted, open source social media. It has turned into a niche platform for small communities, but nerds will find a home there.
Other platforms on the rise...
While the platform began as an alternative for creators frustrated with the policies at Patreon and other creator support platforms, the community building model is gaining ground with creators and regular folks alike. Like Mastodon and others, Locals is collection of communities. Each community host sets a paywall for taking part in the community. The host gets a large portion of the money paid by the community. So, it is like a fusion of Patreon with an old-school online forum, and a little modern social newsfeed peppered in. The paywall helps to filter troll-like behavior and keeps the community small enough to make connections with people whose posts may have otherwise been lost in a newsfeed.
Beautifully designed, Vero is a subscription based social network with no ads, it also addresses social media addiction. The app collects a small amount of usage data that you can view to track how long you are using the app and how often. They want users to have more control over not only their data, but their screen time.
Steemit is what would happen if Quora and Reddit had a lovechild. Many users are posting longer form content: photo essays, recipes, short articles, etc. The Steem blockchain invites developers to build as well, giving rise to other alternative platforms like DTube, a YouTube clone that does not track your personal data.
Substack is a platform for writers to publish their work and gain subscription support directly from their readers. If you're like me, you miss long-form editorials and discussions. These platforms are for readers as much as they are for writers.
So, what does this mean for businesses that use, or even rely on, social media to reach new customers? Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and the others will be around for a while yet. People want to be where people already are - the social Catch 22. But word to the wise - start doing your homework.
The new online landscape will be full of smaller, tighter knit communities who are more careful where they put their trust. The same principles of business will hold true - provide a product or service that people want for a fair price, treat people well, and the word will get out. Figuring out the 'how' is our job.
GHOST ROCK is commited to the success of its clients, many of whom are small and mid-sized family-owned businesses. We will be including research and recommendations for alternative platforms for every client beginning in 2021.