PORTLAND, Maine — Jesse Field is an organic blueberry farmer, as well as a former art student, tuna fisherman and filmmaker’s aide. His resume isn’t the sort that would strike fear into the heart of stalwart social media giant Facebook.
Yet Field, who represents a growing number of Mainers and others who resent Facebook’s manipulation of news feeds and use of users’ personal information, has helped develop what he believes could be the social media platform’s ultimate successor.
Social media experts in the state said Facebook has legitimate problems and there could be an appetite for something new — but that it’ll take a lot to challenge the massive, sprawling online network.
Field, in part, was motivated to draw up a new social media website because he found that he didn’t see the content he wanted in his Facebook news feed, and that his Dresden blueberry farm wasn’t connecting with its supporters on the site.
Field argued that companies and marketers with deeper pockets can pay to promote their posts on Facebook and leapfrog over his friends and local businesses he really would rather be following.
“We all noticed our feeds getting clogged up with ads,” he said. “It makes sense that they have to make money, but it’s too bad it has to come at the expense of the user experience.
“There’s no organic reach any more,” Field continued. “If I ‘Like’ a nonprofit cancer research organization, I’m not even going to see 10 percent of what they post.”
On his new website, no1-fan.com, users are given more direct control over their news feed priorities. They can sort by types of posts — photos, videos or text — or by types of posters — friends or selected businesses — for instance.
The site also mixes in elements of online commerce, with Craigslist- and Etsy-like marketplaces intended to provide users easy access to specific products and services they want — not what Facebook decides to show them.
It’s that voluntary gathering in “fan” groups that gives the website its name, Field said.
“Facebook says, ‘Well, if we didn’t filter [your news feed] for you, you’d see 1,500 posts a day,’” Field said. “Well, how about you just give me the controls and I’ll filter it the way I want? I’ll sort it by what my friends post, or what my favorite businesses post, or by photos or videos.”
For those reluctant to untangle from their mainstay social media haunts — or who want to make a more gradual transition away from them — Field, who is working with programmer Heath Arsenault on the project, has made it possible for users to simultaneously post to Facebook, Twitter and other popular sites through no1-fan.com.
“You can do everything you could do through Facebook, but without the filtering and privacy concerns,” Field said.
To make the site financially feasible, Field acknowledged that he’ll sell advertisements on it, but said they will be displayed as obvious ads, not as posts in users’ news feeds. He also said users can choose to use the site ad-free for $3.99 per month, among other subscription options.
Field has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the site, setting an ambitious $75,000 goal. He pledged never to mine or sell his users’ personal information.
‘What’s the new Facebook?’
Rich Brooks, head of the Portland-based Internet marketing and Web design business flyte new media, said he wishes Field luck in his endeavor. But he said the entrepreneur has a steep hill to climb.
“I still think that Facebook is the most popular, powerful platform in social media. Yes, Facebook gets some bad press and people gripe about it, but people gripe about airlines and the weather,” he said. “There are privacy issues and there are trust issues and there are concerns about Facebook manipulating our data or our emotions … but we may not be willing to leave our hundreds of friends and thousands of photos and thousands of stories just to get back at Facebook.”
In its latest scandal, Facebook officials admitted last month that the website had conducted a study using nearly 700,000 user accounts, showing those individuals predominantly happy or unhappy posts in their news feeds to see if it could affect their emotions. Many users expressed outrage that Facebook would try to toy with their happiness without asking their permission to include them in such research.
“There are some backlashes against Facebook, and there are some really public ones,” said Field.
Alex Steed runs a video production company and writes a blog for the Bangor Daily News, where he occasionally posts “ Digital Inventories” featuring social media traffic focused on Portland.
“I guess I’ve been waiting for an open source alternative to Facebook to come around, but Facebook is the default social media site for general broad engagement with people of a particular age — like 20 and up,” he said.
Steed said many people launch websites with the best of intentions, but then resort to selling users’ personal information when the sale price gets high enough.
“I feel like something’s coming — or a series of solutions are coming — but I go back to message boards and 10 years before Friendster. I’ve seen these things go from crappy, unwieldy communication services to what we have now, but have rarely seen … a service stick to its promise to do what it says without ultimately becoming really shady,” he said.
Steed said he hopes Field — or whoever the next big Web entrepreneur is — will stick to his guns and respect users’ privacy. He also cautioned that “the next big thing” may be something entirely unlike what Internet users are so accustomed to today.
“One of the mistakes we make is [asking] ‘What’s the new Facebook?’” he said. “What’s the next paradigm-shifting site? The next Facebook is very likely, based on what we know about cultural shifts, going to look nothing like Facebook.”
Brooks said Field’s success will be determined by numbers. Not dollars, necessarily, but the number of people he can convince to sign on.
“I do think there will be new platforms that come up — some will succeed, some will get bought out and some will get assimilated into other platforms. That’s just the nature of the game,” he said. “The only reason one would leave Facebook for another primary platform is if one’s friends did first.
“The bigger that network is, the more powerful it becomes and the more difficult it becomes to leave,” Brooks continued.