Whenever a new social media app quickly ascends the App Store download charts, it prompts the inevitable question: Is this the next Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat? Right now, that app is Vero. The comparisons of the new social media platform to its predecessors are especially relevant since it promises to fix the things that users currently dislike. Namely, for Instagram users, the algorithm.
A little history will help illuminate what makes Vero so appealing, and why this is a story less about Vero itself and more about what Instagrammers and other social media users want.
When Instagram switched to a non-chronological feed in 2016, the negative feedback was swift and unrelenting. It persists even today: Almost every news article covering an update to the app comes with the caveat that there is still no chronological timeline. (At the time of the change, Instagram said users were missing 70% of the feed and the new algorithm was intended to surface meaningful, but unseen, posts.) However, despite complaints about the algorithm, there didn't seem to be any consequences. Instagram's number of monthly active users has continued to grow at a rapid rate. The situation, thus far, could be summed up like this: Users may not like the algorithm, but they're not going to do anything about it.
Vero, though, is an app that does something about it. As many articles have pointed out, Vero's chronological timeline is Instagram circa 2015. The app positions itself as the anti-algorithm social media app, claiming it is "less social media, more social life." Take from that what you will, but it's reminiscent of the not-so-subtle shade companies throw at Apple when they emphasise their devices still have a headphone jack or fingerprint sensor, both features the iPhone X has done away with.
Vero's developers are smart: The app's interface looks modern, but its features and overarching concept, which go back to an earlier time of more authentic engagement and chronological feeds, are retro. There are also no ads on Vero, something that contributes to its status as an appealing alternative approach. "In a time where privacy and security on social media are concerns for users, Vero is capitalising on user feedback from other platforms and taking away the complicated aspects such as bots, ads, and spam with a mission to create a platform that simply lets users be themselves," Stephanie Abrams Cartin, the co-founder and co-CEO of social media agency Sociafly told Refinery29.
There is some evidence, beyond surpassing the one million users mark, that Vero's approach is working. Alyssa Melendez, an Influencer better known by her Instagram handle, @thehautebrunette, says the lack of bots is a big plus.
"I’ve only just started a few days ago but I’m already seeing more authentic engagement from my target audience," Melendez told Refinery29. "On Instagram, I get a lot of comments and interactions from countries that don’t really align with my brand — spam-type interactions. I haven’t seen that yet on Vero. I’d prefer quality over quantity any day and I think brands I work with also feel the same way."
Still, it's worth noting that as of now, followings on the app aren't huge — Melendez only has two — indicating that people are downloading it to check it out, but not necessarily using it.
Which brings us back to the question posed in many headlines in recent days: Will Vero be an Instagram killer?
The odds say no. First off, the app has a long way to go before it comes even close to the 800 million monthly users Instagram had as of September 2017, the last time it publicly shared its user base. Couple that with the swift backlash that has taken place on Twitter, with #DeleteVero trending in response to the history of its billionaire Lebanese CEO, Ayman Hariri. The Daily Beast reported that Hariri's involvement in previous business ventures resulted in thousands of claims of unpaid wages. Others have become concerned by how difficult it is to delete an account on Vero.
This reporter can confirm that it is, in fact, difficult — it took me 10 minutes of searching to even find the delete option (it isn't in account Settings, where you might expect to find it; it's in the help section under "choose a department). Even then, you have to wait for the company to confirm your request to be deleted. On this front, it's not a great look for an app that prides itself on putting control back in the hands of its users.
In response to a request for comment, a Vero spokesperson said that much of the Twitter backlash has been about technical issues on the app, which resulted due to the surge in users. The spokesman said the app has decided to extend its "free for life" membership offer to new users until the issues are fixed. As for Hariri's dealings, Vero sent the following statement:
"Saudi Oger was a Saudi construction company founded by Rafic Hariri, Ayman Hariri’s father, in 1978. Rafic Hariri was Prime Minister of Lebanon in 1992 to 1998, and again from 2000 to 2004, prior to his assassination in 2005. Ayman was living in the U.S. at the time of his father’s assassination and returned to Saudi Arabia to support his family and the business until 2013 where he was Deputy CEO and Deputy Chairman, after which he exited the business to pursue other initiatives, including the founding of Vero, which launched in 2015. Ayman Hariri had no operational or management or board oversight of Saudi Oger after 2013 and was not involved in any decisions."
According to Google Trends, the top trending searches around Vero (beyond "what is Vero") have to do with Hariri. In a time when social activism is at its peak and users are calling for increased transparency from existing social media giants including Facebook and Google, early skepticism about Vero's founder could be destructive.
When Abrams Cartin posted about the app on Instagram Stories, a friend sent her a message, saying, "I downloaded it and never opened it and just deleted it. Apparently, the CEO is horrible and there are a couple of shady practices."
Plus, although Vero touts how different it is from other apps, it does nothing to transcend Silicon Valley's gender diversity issues: Only one of the 23 team members listed on the site is female.
Whatever Vero's fate may be, it wouldn't be surprising if other apps learn from what it has done and use that information to create successful clones of their own. Still, there are larger questions relating to privacy and spam that go beyond the easiness of creating a chronological feed. If the largest social media platforms in the world haven't figured out ways to completely squash bots, can a start-up really succeed? It's an issue that's worth fighting for, but one that is much more complicated than it might seem.