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  • Can a social network ever be truly ethical?
  • Can a social network ever be truly ethical?
    Sebastiaan Ter Burg, Creative Commons (2017) ©
CASE STUDY

Vero: ad-free social media that puts privacy first

Privacy concerns and ad-dominated feeds have mainstream social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram facing a ‘trust crisis’. Subscription-based platform Vero offers an alternative with the promise of transparency and control – but is it so different from established industry giants?

Location Global

Scope
With Facebook and Twitter facing a ‘trust crisis’, Vero offers an alternative – and supposedly more ethical – social media platform. Understanding privacy concerns and playing to mixed feelings about targeted advertising, it provides a secure channel that makes money through subscription fees. And while other platforms require users to provide personal information to create an account, Vero lets people sign up all but anonymously, aiming to encourage unfiltered sharing. [1] But is it truly more ethical than other social networks?

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“We created a social network that lets you be yourself. Hence the name Vero. Meaning Truth,” reads the platform’s manifesto. In this vein, it aims to give users total control over their privacy – from giving a transparent understanding of who can see their posts, to how it doesn’t require personal data or track their actions to feed back to advertisers. The app provides an alternative model of social media, opposing enforced surveillance to give users more choice when it comes to privacy. “We made our business model subscription-based,” the manifesto continues. “Making our users our customers, not advertisers.” [1]

From paid influencer partnerships on Instagram to the proliferation of ‘fake news’ on Facebook and Twitter, advertising spend has shaped how users interact with major social networks, causing trust in these platforms to plummet. Vero mitigates these anxieties with its subscription model, which means its funding comes from users, ensuring a more transparent experience. [2] It also addresses a key frustration among Instagram users, displaying posts chronologically rather than in an order defined by algorithms. [3]

Vero puts online privacy into people’s hands Vero puts online privacy into people’s hands
Michael Brace, Creative Commons (2017) ©

Context
In 2017, Instagram’s decision to begin sorting posts algorithmically removed the spontaneous, serendipitous discovery that casual users enjoyed, instead driving engagement with paid-for posts. In response, some users formed ‘pods’ to wrest control back from the platform, while others flocked to alternatives like Vero. Founder and CEO Ayman Hariri originally created the social network in 2015, but momentum didn’t pick up until three years later, in February 2018, when app downloads surged from 150,000 to over three million, partly due to the publicised issues with more established platforms. [4]

Recent years have seen web users trial various challenger platforms, including Ello, Peach and Sarahah, all of which claimed to offer different versions of ‘authentic’ connection. Ello remains closest to Vero in that it’s not supported by advertising. [5] Sarahah, meanwhile, appealed to people by allowing them to give and receive honest, anonymous feedback – though it ultimately resulted in cyberbullying. [6] And Peach won users over with an emphasis on spontaneous associative content, encouraging them to share music, moods, drawings, and ‘magic words’. [7]

Vero describes itself as “a social network for anyone who loves anything enough to share it – and wants control over who they share it with.” [8] Yet if subscribers have to financially invest in their privacy, how sustainable is Vero’s model? “Its biggest USP may be that it is free from the targeted advertising, [but] this raises questions about its long-term viability as a social media platform,” says Paul Reilly, a senior lecturer in social media & digital society at the University of Sheffield. [9] According to a report from the World Economic Forum, while 71% of people globally value the ‘right to be forgotten’ – the ability to have one’s personal information deleted from the web – and 75% say it’s important to have control over their personal data, only 46% are willing to pay for this control. [10]

Its biggest USP may be that it is free from the targeted advertising, [but] this raises questions about its long-term viability

Paul Reilly, senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield

Despite its ambitious manifesto, controversy has arisen about whether Vero is able to deliver transparency and control. Largely popular with artists and designers, the app faced backlash when people discovered that Vero’s terms of service gave it the right to take users’ posts and reuse the content without paying royalties. [2] This may be a warning sign for the 60% of American smartphone users who have chosen not to install an app after discovering how much personal info it required, with 43% having uninstalled an app for the same reason after initially downloading it. [11] In addition to this loss of control over their content, users found that they could not delete their accounts without filing a ‘detailed request’ on Vero’s website. [12]

In March 2018, #DeleteVero trended as users campaigned against the app following the revelation that CEO Ayman Hariri was involved with construction firm Saudi Oger. The company was embroiled in a labour rights controversy that saw over 31,000 workers file a lawsuit for unpaid wages. [13]#DeleteVero demonstrates just how unacceptable people find brands’ hypocrisy to be. For an app touting itself as an ethical alternative to the big four, its CEO’s behaviour is seen as doubly abhorrent.

People are growing warier of what they read online People are growing warier of what they read online
Vero (2017) ©

Insights and opportunities
Vero’s rapid rise is aligned with people’s declining trust in social media, with only 5% of American adults saying they have ‘a lot’ of trust in the information they get from social media. [14] Additionally, people are worried where their data is being shared without their permission, and while 36% of 18- to 29-year-olds in the US strongly agree that ‘negative social media experiences could be prevented through the use of privacy settings’, there’s no guarantee of privacy online. [15] Indeed, Vero’s privacy policy states that it “cannot ensure or warrant the security of any information you transmit,” so it’s no surprise that users are discovering the app to be disingenuous. [16]

With more people aware of the ‘filter bubbles’ formed by their social networks, 20% Americans say they want to see more opinions from beyond their in-person friend group. Conversely, others are seeking refuge in friendlier, less politically-charged forms of interaction, with 24% saying they switched up their social media habits after the 2016 election because their feeds were too political. [17] Although Vero can’t guarantee that such topics won’t crop up on its platform, the absence of advertising can ensure that ‘fake news’ doesn’t spread as far, potentially enhancing the quality of online conversation.

Successful apps build structures that reward our pleasure centers. They compel you to click

Navneet Alang, technology writer

“Successful apps build structures that reward our pleasure centers,” writes Navneet Alang for The New Republic. “They compel you to click.” [7] Part of the reason why social media platforms are so addictive is that they’re set up to form dependency; according to a 2015 report, 92% of American teens go online daily, while 24% are online ‘almost constantly’. [18] But the constant cycle of desire and fulfilment means “the very realness of digital interaction can itself become too much – another modern mechanism in which surfeit is the norm, and the only healthy response is, perversely, a kind of denial,” writes Alang, explaining why people may seek out less-satisfying platforms or disconnect altogether. [7]

From the outset, Vero has claimed to provide users with a sensitive approach to social media. In the wake of #DeleteVero, it has since sought to rectify its reputation, with Hariri explaining that “we don’t have an agenda other than producing the best product we can.” [19] As social media continues to shape how people relate to one another, Vero’s story illustrates how these platforms’ influence is all but inescapable and that, despite their intentions, these media don’t always function as intended. Its short-lived rise nonetheless makes it clear how people desire more transparent, more accountable platforms.

vero.co

Related behaviours
Radical Transparency: People are seeking organisations that place honesty first
Identity Games: As life becomes more public, people are playing with privacy.

Hatty Nestor is a writer who has been published in Art in America, BOMB, Frieze, and many other publications. She was the 2017 writer-in-residence at Jerwood Arts Space. Her book on portraits of the incarcerated is forthcoming from Zero Books in 2019.

Sources
1. 'Vero Manifesto', Vero
2. 'Vero: What you need to know about the 'new Instagram', and why people are worried about it', The Independent (February 2018)
3. 'Vero is taking on Instagram by fixing the one thing everyone hates about Instagram', Time (February 2018)
4. 'As controversy swirls, social network Vero is closing in on 3 million users', The Verge (March 2018)
5. 'Can Ello remain ad-free? Here are 5 ad-free social networks that failed', WordStream (July 2015)
6. 'How Sarahah became one of the most popular iPhone apps in the world', Mashable (July 2017)
7. 'The Peach app is dead, but it taught us something about social media', The New Republic (January 2016)
8. 'Why Vero', Vero
9. Interview with Paul Reilly conducted by author
10. 'Section 1: user behaviour, preferences and concerns', World Economic Forum (January 2016)
11. 'Key takeaways on mobile apps and privacy', Pew Research Centre (November 2015)
12. 'Here's how to delete Vero if you're already sick of having the app on your phone', HelloGiggles (February 2018)
13. 'You know Vero, that new app everyone’s downloading? Yeah, it’s secretly very evil', Babe.net (March 2018)
14. 'Key trends in social and digital news media', Pew Research Center (October 2017)
15. 'Do you agree that potentially negative experiences resulting from social media activity can be prevented through the use of privacy settings?', Statista (2017)
16. 'Privacy Policy', Vero
17. 'Social media usage has shifted post-election', YouGov (March 2017)
18. 'Teens, social media & technology overview 2015', Pew Research Centre (April 2015)
19. 'As Vero - True Social nears 3 million members, questions about CEO remain', Forbes (March 2018)

Featured Experts

Dr. Paul Reilly

Dr. Paul Reilly SFHEA is a senior lecturer in social media & digital society at the University of Sheffield.

Author

Hatty Nestor is a writer who has been published in Art in America, BOMB, Frieze, and many other publications. She was the 2017 writer-in-residence at Jerwood Arts Space. Her book on portraits of the incarcerated is forthcoming from Zero Books in 2019.