Complex Made Simple

Can local social media apps ever replace Facebook?

Following issues of brand safety, measurability, data privacy and transparency, tech giants – mostly Facebook – have got themselves in hot water.

Just last month Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg appeared in front of the US Senate over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Around the same time, users started a #DeleteFacebook movement with users deleting their account. Among them, most notably, was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk who went a step further to delete even the brand pages of Tesla and SpaceX.

On March 23, Facebook’s shares fell as much as 6.5 percent putting it on course for the worst month since August 2012. And between March 16 and 26, in just 10 days, Facebook had lost about $100 billion in market value.

Things got even worse when the US’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC) confirmed it’s investigating the social network’s privacy practices.

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Do marketers care?

Following the controversy, at the end of March, only seven of the top 1000 spenders had ceased spends on Facebook. Of these seven, two said that the decision was unrelated to Facebook’s ongoing issues.

Even The New York Times, which broke the Cambridge Analytica story, continued spending on Facebook, according to Pathmatics. “We don’t discuss or confirm advertising costs,” a spokeswoman said. “Facebook is among the outlets on which we advertise to help reach potential subscribers.”

“We at Clorox stand by Facebook as an essential partner in building our brands,” Clorox Co. chief marketing officer Eric Reynolds said in a statement. 

The scandal seems to be affecting users more than marketers.

If anything, marketers want more data – not less.

And some marketers, even if they want to step away, can’t or won’t, because what’s the alternative?

Turns out there’s more than one.

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Emergence of local social media

China’s ban on Google and Facebook is legendary and it has successfully substituted them with the likes of WeChat, Weibo, Baidu, QQ, and Youku.

In 2017, WeChat’s parent company Tencent Holdings Ltd. surpassed Facebook Inc. in market value, becoming the world’s fifth largest publicly traded company. It was valued at $528 billion, just above Facebook’s $522 billion.

What about in the Middle East?

It seems unlikely that local social media apps will overtake Facebook, which might have something to do with the fact that Facebook, unlike in China, isn’t banned here. However, much like China, the ban of Skype in the UAE did lead to VoIP apps such as Botim and C’Me, both of which are controlled by the government.

Still, developers aren’t giving up, so here we take a look at a few regional apps that have – or had – the potential to well, #deleteFacebook.

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Let’s look at Sarahah, a Saudi-based app, which promotes ‘honesty’ through anonymous comments. The app was an instant success with it topping Apple’s App Store in over 30 countries in July 2017 alone and more than 300 million accounts.

But, the anonymous nature of the app was a cause of concern.

“The problem with anonymous apps such as Sarahah is that whilst they may, and I stress the word may, have been created with a positive use in mind. The trend towards anonymity suggests that many of these apps are actually being designed with cyberbullying in mind. It seems a weak proposition in this day and age that Zain Alabdiin Tawfiq designed the app to send ‘constructive messages’ to people. The cynical world we live in would obviously take this platform and send unwanted, cruel, insulting messages to whoever we want, hiding behind the veil of anonymity. Something that the current star ratings of the app seem to demonstrate. Nearly as many 1 star reviews as 5 star and the main reason behind that being the worry that the platform seems absolutely perfect for people to send mean hurtful messages to complete strangers,” said Barry Lee Cummings, chief awareness officer, Beat the Cyberbully, a UAE-based initiative to tackle cyberbullying.

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And so, after nearly a year, in February 2018, the app was taken off Apple and Google’s app stores. Still, Sarahah’s CEO Zain-Alabdin Tawfiq remains adamant. In a BBC interview, he called Apple and Google’s decision “unfortunate”, but is “very optimistic about reaching a favorable understanding with them soon.”

Then there’s Vero. Its claim to fame is that it’s ad-free. Although it was launched back in 2015, it went on to trend in the Google Play Store earlier this year – so much so that the massive usage caused its servers to crash. It was started Ayman Hariri, son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, because he was frustrated with the privacy policies of ad-based social networks. The app aims to make money through user subscriptions and a percentage of the money companies make from selling within the app.

Although launched in India a while back, an app called Flochat has been making the rounds since it was voted as one of top 10 start-ups at STEP 2018. It calls itself an “evolved messaging platform allowing users to chat and use popular third-party apps and services to book, order, transact, browse and share content.” Now available in the UAE, Flochat’s user activity has grown by 20% month-on-month in Q1 2018 with message sharing increasing by 200% from December 2017 to January 2018.

The app is a hybrid social network combining messaging, organizing, ride hailing, etc., which provides it with ample opportunities to team up with brands. It has already partnered with Zomato, Groupon, Careem, Uber, Bing and Youtube. It’s currently in the process of finalizing more partnerships that will be announced soon.

And finally, there’s Egypt Face, which as the name suggests is the local version of Facebook. Although the founders of the platform seem to be undisclosed, many believe that it is a government project as it was launched within two weeks of Egyptian Communication Minister, Yasser al-Qadi’s announcement of Egypt’s own social network, according to reports from Egyptian media outlets. Is Egypt adopting China’s strategy to spy on its citizens or are the two unrelated? So far, it seems to be the former although there are no conclusive reports on either scenario.

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So, what’s the final word?

Local, independent developers simply don’t have the audience and scale that Facebook does. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters to both users and advertisers. Users won’t spend time on a platform that doesn’t have the scale and volume of ‘friends’ and content, and advertisers won’t spend money on a platform where audiences aren’t spending their time.

This article first appeared in AMEinfo’s sister publication Communicate