The Unthink-able: Can Anyone Challenge Facebook?

The last year has seen a number of social media sites launch which are explicitly positioned as alternatives to Facebook, offering more privacy, more control over sharing, and less advertising. The latest such site to receive a lot of press is Unthink, which recently announced that it has raised $2.5 million in venture capital funding from Douglas Bay Capital.

In what seems to be an attempt to tap into the sense of grievance which motivates Occupy Wall Street, Unthink describes itself as a “social revolution” which promises to “emancipate social media.” And it does have some strong selling points. One of its interesting features include the ability to divide your interactions with other individuals on the network into different “suites” and “stages,” effectively managing your public and private presence. This is a good idea, but also one that Facebook and Google+ have moved towards with Groups and Circles, respectively. Also, the default setting for sharing is private -- another distinct improvement over established networks which subtly push you into sharing more than you might realize.

As noted, Unthink isn’t the first un-Facebook out there: last year I wrote about Diaspora, a “more secure, personalized” network which gives users more control in what information they share about themselves. On its Web site Diaspora is billed as a “privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network.” Diaspora also makes a point of leaving its code open for other programmers to introduce their own features, innovations, and variants. Users can also “set up their own personal servers” and “create their own hubs.”

While it has little to do with user experience, from a public relations perspective it will be interesting to see how the people founding these new sites define success -- an important strategic move to avoid being prematurely labeled a “failure” by a breathless, overhasty press. I make this point because it frankly seems unlikely that any of the new networks will ever approach Facebook in terms of the most-cited metric -- the number of users it has attracted.

Currently Facebook probably has somewhere between 700 million and 800 million registered users -- a colossal number which includes over half the population of the U.S. This sheer volume means that Facebook enjoys what one of the speakers at OMMA Social termed “massive incumbency” -- a combination of volume and momentum that appear to make it unstoppable. Simply put, everyone wants to be on Facebook because everyone else is already there.

By contrast new social networks face the challenge of attracting enough users to make it worthwhile for other users to join, thereby achieving critical social mass. The real nature of this challenge has been highlighted in recent weeks by Google+, yet another Facebook competitor that -- so far at least -- has failed to set the world on fire.

That said, Google+, Unthink, and Diaspora are all relatively new, and it’s still possible Facebook will do something so deeply alienating that these smaller alternatives become more attractive.  Only time will tell.

3 comments about "The Unthink-able: Can Anyone Challenge Facebook?".
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  1. Paul Hughes from Erasmus Media, October 27, 2011 at 5:57 p.m.

    But the point will be who they do attract. Of course it will be smaller — the privacy guarantees it — but if the groups are discrete as well as discreet, certain advertisers will want in, to get these specific people, just like any niche item. They aren't trying to be FB.

  2. Douglas Ryan from RRD, October 27, 2011 at 6:03 p.m.

    Facebook is more likely to be overthrown by evolving technology rather than by a direct competitor.

  3. Stephen Shearin from ionBurst Media, October 27, 2011 at 9:24 p.m.

    Mr Ryan is dead on. The question is, if FB disappeared, what would the real impact be? Evolving technology and the fact that it's money-making ability is not proprietary beyond relationships (which can be moved or re-established) poses a much bigger threat than a competitor whose goal is to unseat the champ. FB is about 50/50 as of today imho.

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