As users grow wary of Facebook and other social media giants, these startups offer the promise of privacy.
As social media giants such as Facebook battle disinformation and data security issues, some users are opting for smaller, more low-key platforms that prioritize "privacy-forward" messaging.
Bethany and John Wilson live in Alabama with their two children, but struggle to keep in touch via traditional social media platforms with family spread across the United States.
"Social media for me was something that was very noisy and I lost the things that I cared about in the midst of that noise," said John, a software designer.
Facebook continues to dominate as the most popular social media platform, but amid recent privacy issues, including a $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, users are growing wary. According to a recent poll by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, over 60 percent of users do not trust Facebook with their data and over 80 percent think social media is a waste of time.
"Facebook has never done better as a business, and better as a stock, because it sells lots of advertising," said Kara Swisher, editor-at-large at Recode. "But it's facing all of these reputational issues about what it does with your data. People are worried that this company has enormous troves of data and they are not managing it properly."
Now, a new crop of private social media apps is looking to capitalize on this concern and give users an alternative to sites such as Facebook, in both size and privacy.
"We will never share your data, or sell it with third parties," said Sachin Monga, co-founder and CEO of Cocoon, one of the new apps used by the Wilsons. Cocoon is a privacy-forward messaging platform that the company describes as "not a social network," but a private space for the "group that you consider to be as close as family."
Sachin Monga and Alex Cornell, both former Facebook employees, started Cocoon together after noticing smaller, closer connections getting lost in the massive size of popular platforms.
"Networks are good for so many things, but over time they get a little bit worse at handling our most intimate relationships."
"What we were missing was a real space just for family," said Cornell. "Networks are good for so many things, but over time they get a little bit worse at handling our most intimate relationships. I think the "Aha!" moment for us was that this space, this cocoon we thought could exist."
While Snap, Facebook Messenger, and Whatsapp do give users access to privacy features, only half of Facebook's users say they have adjusted their privacy settings, according to a 2018 Pew Research study. Smaller, private "family network apps" such as Live360, Kohort and Cluster have grown in popularity, but are dwarfed in size compared to Facebook's nearly 2.5 billion users.
"I think it's very difficult for social media companies to break through and get the kind of audience needed to combat something like Facebook," said Swisher. "It's very hard to break into the market and get people to use it."
For now, Cocoon is free, but the co-founders say they will transition to a subscription model in the near future in lieu of selling user data. Monga and Cromwell are banking on the privacy and traffic differences between Cocoon and other apps as the biggest selling points to attract users who will be willing to pay for the service.
"The great thing about Cocoon is that it doesn't get mixed in with a lot of other noise," said Wilson. "You get the information you care about, instead of anything additional that might irritate you or you might find funny or for some other reason just helps you procrastinate. It just kind of helps you get to the point quickly."