At the beginning of February the comedy website SplitSider ran a candid interview, titled “How Facebook is Killing Comedy,” with comedy writer Matt Klinman. Klinman’s career has involved a lot of writing specifically for the internet, including for one of the original online comedy strongholds, Funny or Die—a once-popular outlet which was recently forced to drastically reimagine their business model, involving a number of layoffs. In light of this, Klinman posted a string of angry tweets, highlighting the ruinous impact that Facebook has had on independent creatives, going on to say, “it is impossible to make money writing comedy on the internet anymore.”
This was his original tweet:
Speaking to fellow freelancer Sarah Aswell, Klinman elaborated:
“The whole story is basically that Facebook gets so much traffic that they started convincing publishers to post things on Facebook. For a long time, that was fine. People posted things on Facebook, then you would click those links and go to their websites. But then, gradually, Facebook started exerting more and more control of what was being seen, to the point that they, not our website, essentially became the main publishers of everyone’s content. Today, there’s no reason to go to a comedy website that has a video if that video is just right on Facebook. And that would be fine if Facebook compensated those companies for the ad revenue that was generated from those videos, but because Facebook does not pay publishers, there quickly became no money in making high-quality content for the internet.”
Klinman was hardly the first person to notice that Facebook doesn’t always have its users’ best interests at heart, but his interview is an elegant, lapidary insight into the specific harm that Zuckerberg is doing to independent creatives, and their ability to make and promote interesting work. What with print organisations laying off staff thick and fast, idiosyncratic outlets like Funny or Die being forced to Commercialise or Die, and business models being exsanguinated by a de facto publisher that neither believes itself to be a publishing platform nor behaves like one, things are looking pretty bleak for a lot of people. “Woe to those who want to start something new right now,” Klinman laments.
“You’re depressing me,” Aswell replies.
We know how she feels.
Let’s rewind two-and-a-bit-years. There was resentment about social media then too, but it was more diffuse, and as Klinman recalls, you could still make a living writing jokes. Instagram had not yet subjected users to the deeply unpopular algorithmic timeline, replacing the familiar chronological posts, and Vice Media had not yet “pivoted to video,” laying off sixty staffers in order to focus on short-form visual content. That’s when we were approached by Ayman Hariri, Vero’s CEO, with a proposition—to take a new challenger app to market. Launching a new social media app is pretty much the toughest nut to crack in the brand Olympics—others have tried to take on Facebook and Instagram and they all ended face-down in the dust. Ello. Mastodon. Peach. Anybody who heard we were planning to launch a new social platform echoed some version of Klinman’s words: “Woe to those who want to start something new right now.”
But we relish a unique challenge, especially when we see a unique solution. Ayman’s clarity of vision and commitment to providing a genuinely new social experience allowed us to approach the problem in a way that has never been attempted before—slowly. We had seen apps before which had thrown millions of dollars of investment at their product only to later find themselves asking why they couldn’t get anyone to hit “download.” We knew that the only way it could possibly succeed was by creating a welcoming, exciting environment—so we turned on the taps and started filling up the bath.
After all, it wasn’t hard to see why Ello and Peach failed. People had been straining to stick it to Big Social for years, but every time they tried to leave, something pulled them back in: their connections. For all Facebook’s flaws, there were connections built up on those sites over years and years, and when people found themselves in a new environment, it didn’t matter what features there were or how well designed it all was—they were there alone.
What those platforms needed was the one thing you can’t design on a laptop—a culture. Otherwise the best we could hope for was momentary interest and a lack of retention. It wasn’t good enough for us to simply hit our million unique user target—we wanted them to have a good time, too. That way, we knew they’d stay.
As it turns out, it takes a lot of time and patience to fill a bath, and when you have investors breathing down your neck, it can be hard to feel particularly zen. But we knew that resolve was key. If we wanted to make this work, people had to be able to behave on Vero in the way they wanted to, right from the offset. And the only way to ensure that happened was for us to lead by example. We jumped thumbs-first into the platform, we worked closely with Vero to embrace the app’s unique culture, and very slowly we brought a careful community of partners into the fold. We ensured we chose people who genuinely shared our vision so we could slowly scale up the sense of community we felt ourselves as early adopters. Community, behaviour, connection; whatever you want to call it, it’s the invisible, unfakeable element that decides whether your platform’s atmosphere can support life.
Our approach as Vero’s strategic partner didn’t result in a million downloads overnight—and we knew it wouldn’t. In fact, we didn’t want it to. We wanted to grow slowly, always sticking to the same path. We consistently posted on the app, right from the outset, working out our favourite ways to post. We badgered our spouses and siblings to download Vero. We approached celebrities and influencers, but in order to preserve our unique vision, we didn’t pay them outright—we used our marketing spend to help fund their passion projects, or helped develop ways they could use the app which would give fans who followed them elsewhere something valuable and new. We weren’t interested in their name, their follower count, or their blue tick. We were interested in their personalities, their behaviour, and what they could bring to the Vero universe. Pretty soon we began to develop a grassroots network of small superfans across a range of interests: fashion, photography, comic books, film, body art. And, as grass tends to do, it grew.
Of course, we weren’t interested in simply being an app for comic book fans or an app for fashion fans—behaviour is key, not specific content. We were interested in being an app where fans—people with passions, interests, opinions, thoughts, feelings—could come and feel instantly at home. We wanted a place where expression and creativity was front-and-centre, because we knew a day would come when people would come searching for that—a genuine alternative to the stifling, siloed, hyper-commercialised landscape of Facebook that Klinman highlights in his interview. You can’t design that alternative from the top down. It has to be grown, from the roots up.
Which is why people who are now hearing about Vero for the first time are sometimes surprised to learn that it softlaunched way back in 2015. Others are simply surprised by its runaway success, becoming the most-downloaded free app in eighteen countries overnight. But we’re not surprised at all. Without years of careful groundwork, you might not be hearing about it in the first place. Sure, the mass exodus of Instagram is a direct result of the algorithms and adverts that, as Klinman noted in his interview, are choking the life out of social platforms, not to mention the Facebook addictions, the experiments with our emotions, the paywalls, the fake news, the fact that nobody actually seems to feel comfortable behaving online the way they do in real life. But our job as Vero’s creative and strategic partner was to make sure that, when the time inevitably came, those people had somewhere else to go, and weren’t jumping straight into an empty bathtub.
And it’s far from over yet—fake news might be halfway around the world, but our unique brand of True Social is only just putting its boots on.
Find out more by watching our hero film below, demonstrating our journey and vision with Vero: