Could This Ad-Free Social Media App Go Mainstream Amid Facebook’s Privacy Woes?

Subscription-based platform Vero has 4 million users

Vero touts itself as an ad and algorithm-free social media app. Vero
Headshot of Ann-Marie Alcántara

During Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing in front of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch asked the beleaguered Facebook chief executive, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”

Zuckerberg: “Senator, we run ads.”

As one billionaire social network CEO faces the ire of the nation, if not that of both houses of Congress, another billionaire social network chief executive sees an opportunity to connect people without using an advertising-based model. Vero, a three-year-old social platform, thinks it can capitalize on Facebook’s mistakes. Mainly by making users pay with cold, hard cash for its product.

“We’re not here to use people’s data; we’re not here to monetize on it,” said Ayman Hariri, Vero’s CEO.

Almost every year, a new social network arises promising to be the next Facebook. (Remember Ello? And Peach? And Yo? And Mastodon? And Gribby? That last one’s not real, but you know what I mean.) It goes viral for a day, maybe a week, only to die down and watch its users abandon it for the social networks they already love. Like Twitter. And Facebook. And Snapchat. And Gribby.

Vero, this season’s It social platform, rose to fame in late February, and Hariri doesn’t think it’ll end up in the social media graveyard due to its ad-free and algorithm-free model—and its promise not to data mine user content or information.

“We don’t know who our users are,” Hariri said. “We’re not doing any psychological profiling of them or understanding what their habits are.”

That’s not to say Vero hasn’t faced its own issues around privacy and data. The company recently clarified its terms of service after users were upset that the previous terms of service alluded to Vero owning their content.

“We have no intention of getting our users to sign up for something [and have them] have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. I think that’s really what’s happening today with companies like Facebook,” Hariri said.

Hariri also has his own personal controversy during the app’s rise in popularity, after his relationship to his family’s construction firm, Saudi Oger was uncovered. The firm was sued by 30,000 workers for unpaid wages last year and subsequently shut down. Hariri’s a billionaire, whose father, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, was assassinated in 2005. His half-brother, Saad Hariri, is the country’s current prime minister. According to a statement on Vero’s website, Hariri divested from the company in 2013 and has had “no operational, management or board oversight” since then.

His family issues, and company’s privacy issues, do not appear to be stopping Hariri from pushing forward with the social network. According to Hariri, there are 4 million users on the app, up from the 150,000 downloads the company had at the end of January. Hariri declined to state how many were daily active users, and declined to say how much a subscription would cost.

Vero has six core functions; users can post photos, a link or share what music, movie, TV show, or book they’re watching or listening to, and their location. Similar to Google Plus circles (remember those?), users can create four different social circles to share to: close friends, friends or acquaintances and followers. Friends or followers can opt-in to only follow some of a user’s content and vice versa.

Since the app is both chronological-focused and not seeking to introduce ads, Hariri believes the app is “immune” to other problems plaguing social media platforms such as the proliferation of fake news and bots. (He did acknowledge however that doesn’t mean users won’t ever post fake news and share it with their friends.)

“We’re looking to build and give our users that we have the best experience that we can,” Hariri said.

The app has also already jumped into social commerce. Twenty-five brands can sell on the app through a special tab called “Products” and users can pay with Apple Pay. Vero takes a five to 10 percent cut of what’s sold on the app. This week, Vero is also introducing a feature called “Charities,” where users can donate to charities directly.

At some point next year, Hariri shared that the company will switch over to the subscription model the app is built upon, and will find a price “that’s affordable to many.”

This is the problem Hariri believes lies in most social networks today: Too many users have signed up for a free service without understanding what that means and how it’ll affect them.

“People are really feeling the cost of free or understanding it today,” Hariri said. “They’re giving up a lot of their data and [they’re find out] what is being done with that data in order to be able to effectively target users for advertising.”

@itstheannmarie Ann-Marie Alcántara is a tech reporter for Adweek, focusing on direct-to-consumer brands and ecommerce.