I’ve compared Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates before. It’s both a flattering and unflattering comparison.
The parallels aren’t perfect, but both men have built huge and defensible businesses by commanding monopoly-like positions in our digital lives. Microsoft controlled the desktop, and Facebook, like it or not, is the world’s best social graph. It won social the way Google won search. Google+ isn’t pulling an Android-like spoiler. It’s done.
But as we all know, just because it’s comprehensive, doesn’t mean Facebook is the best place to have every connection and conversation. And now we’re starting to see a fascinating new trend: the rise of the anti-viral, anti-social network.
An anti-social network isn’t as simple as being a mere Facebook alternative, or a niche social network. Those have both been tried in spades, and have failed along the way, even when Facebook was weaker. As much as people had issues with Facebook’s loosey-goosey privacy policies, the alternatives haven’t generated much more than headlines. Niche social networks for, say, Baby Boomers, moms, and dog lovers haven’t taken off either.
Turns out if you want to have conversations with people you know, plan events, and share photos, Facebook is the place to go. It’s too hard to compete with that. It’s similar to how I recently wrote that the Instagram for video wound up being… well, Instagram.
How do you succeed against Facebook? The same way that desktop and small business software companies have always managed to succeed against Microsoft: By finding “white space.” In Microsoft’s most powerful days, that was the first question the press or a VC would ask: Does Microsoft compete with you now, and, if not, how do you know they won’t?
When it comes to building a consumer Web company around human relationships, the smartest entrepreneurs aren’t thinking niche. They are thinking orthogonal. There’s a difference.
Niche means that Facebook could do it, but you think you could do it better. That’s what loses. What seems to win, so far, are the approaches that do what Facebook couldn’t do, by design.
Look at the core things Facebook does well: photos, connecting you with everyone you know, providing a permanent record, and real identity. These are the exact four things that have made Facebook a powerful company with users and advertisers; these are the four things it can’t betray and hope to succeed.
So among the threats to Facebook, you’ve got Snapchat, which is inherently temporary; Whisper, which is inherently anonymous; and Nextdoor or Life360 (the sponsor of this series), where you can only connect with neighbors or family. Nextdoor is particularly extreme, making you verify residence before you can connect to a network. Many of these are inherently non-viral. Nextdoor at one point relied more on stickers – physical, not virtual, stickers that you put up around the neighborhood – for marketing than on spamming address books.
In case these examples seem too unproven for you, consider LinkedIn. Reid Hoffman always believed, stubbornly and at times against conventional wisdom, that a professional social network was fundamentally orthogonal to a truly social network. For a long time, LinkedIn stubbornly refused to allow you to add photos and until recently didn’t let you add people whose email address you didn’t already know. That hampered its growth in an era when Facebook was hockey-sticking. But, Hoffman argued, it made LinkedIn’s social graph distinctive. Take a look at the company’s performance since it opened itself up to the scrutiny of the public market: Hoffman has been proven right.
Now consider Twitter. It had a core feature essential to its central organizing premise that was orthogonal to Facebook: asymmetrical following. The fact that people could follow you but you didn’t have to follow them was crucial in creating a network that was fundamentally different to Facebook’s.
What about someone like Path or Instagram? Instagram was heavily reliant on photos – a core Facebook strength – but was orthogonal to Facebook in a sense because it was mobile-first. That’s why it was so important to purchase Instagram: Desktop vs. Mobile was no longer something that could define Facebook if it wanted to survive.
Path is a trickier example. It has always tried to be orthogonal, and founder Dave Morin was one of the first to believe in this concept — well before Snapchat, Whisper, or Nextdoor. In an effort to force tight relationships, Path did things like limit the number of followers you could have. Ultimately, however, it just hasn’t differentiated what you can do on Path enough from what you can do on Facebook – particularly a Facebook that owns Instagram. For me, my network on Path has long been just a smaller subset of the people I already share photos with on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. While Path’s efforts to be radically different to the way that the market seemed to applaud were certainly gutsy, perhaps Morin should have taken it further.
The anti-social network trend is not only fascinating but also core to digging up the next great consumer Web and mobile giants. For that reason, we’re digging into it all month in a series called, yep, “Antisocial Networks.” If you know of a story or angle we should look into, email us at tips (at) pandodaily.com.
PandoDaily’s special report on antisocial networks is sponsored by Life360. Learn more about Life360 at www.life360.com.