Small business owner Jeff Meyer of White Bear Lake and 10 of his relatives and friends are upset with Facebook.
So upset that they’ve launched an alternative private social network.
We’ve learned through stunning revelations that the $55 billion-revenue company, ostensibly formed to bring the world closer together through online-interest groups, isn’t just a virtual gathering place for people who like peace, pecans or Pekingese.
Founder Mark Zuckerberg, a billionaire at 34, has made Facebook a huge commercial success.
However, we’ve learned over the last couple of years that the reason we get Facebook for free is because we are the product Facebook is selling to third parties, as well as advertising.
In addition to allowing Russian interests to run bogus election-related news, Facebook was slow to police its site against stuff like pedophilia and hate mongers. Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct political-data firm, was able to procure private information of 80 million-plus Facebook users, and Facebook has acknowledged a security breach that left some 600 million user passwords readable to its employees.
Enter Meyer & Co., who have launched TheHorn.net, a private-network alternative to Facebook.
In March, Zuckerberg touted a new “privacy-focused vision” for the social network that would emphasize private communication over public sharing. However, security experts question whether a company that couldn’t manage to encrypt passwords can take on a tougher task.
“We don’t know how many people are dissatisfied with Facebook,” said James Touchi-Peters, a software programmer, former conductor of the Minnesota Philharmonic, and member of Meyer’s investor group who has spent nearly a year working on TheHorn.net. “About 1 percent of Facebook membership is 28 million people. We only need about 100,000 to make the Horn work.”
“The Horn is walled off from the public internet,” said Meyer. “You make your connections directly. We’ve turned off the analytics. We don’t need the ‘network effect.’ ”
There’s no indication that outrage and dissatisfaction has led to a mass exodus from Facebook among users, despite lawsuits, congressional hearings and even Zuckerberg’s admission that it may be time for stepped-up government regulation. It’s still making billions in profits.
TheHorn.net, which seeks 10,000 members this year, is an ad-free file sharing and social network that charges $3.99 a month, or $30 a year paid in advance, by credit card. It pledges to never sell or give away user data to third-party advertisers or other vendors.
Meyer and Touchi-Peters believe they are different because of the monthly-fee model that is separated from the public web and not indexed by search engines. Individuals and affinity groups are allowed to privately communicate, share and post photos and other communications.
The Horn’s founders say it’s most useful to members who join with other people, such as an organization or affinity group. It somewhat resembles a team-chatting environment, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams. But Horn.net uses a “distinctly different format for private communication, closer to the format the public is used to with free social networks,” the company says.
The privacy controls default to “colleagues,” what social networks call “friends.” TheHorn.net boasts file sharing and cloud-based storage space, is easy to quit, and history is erased with three clicks, according to the owners. Facebook can be tough to quit and delete account activity.
The Horn seeks disaffected former Facebook patrons, as well as those who just want a second, more-secure private network.
“When people read our terms of service, they will understand,” Meyer said. “We don’t need the ‘big network’ effect where most of the people looking at your page are really not your ‘friends.’
“Facebook is broadcasting. We have a small group of personal friends that’s walled off from the internet. Google can’t search it. Employers can’t find it. We want people who want privacy. And we have an app that sends out invitations. The Horn is about private communications.”
TheHorn.net invested about $500,000 over the last year to build, test and launch the service.
Most of that has gone to legal fees, grumbled Meyer, who underestimated the complexity of the endeavor.
“We’re not about to replace Facebook,” quipped Touchi-Ross. “That’s where you have 500 ‘friends.’ The Horn is a place to which you drag your 10 real friends, to share information privately.”
Meyer, 53, went from worker to owner of White Bear Glass with his wife when they bought it in 1994. He’s not betting the glass business on the Horn.
“This isn’t tied to the construction industry,” Meyers said. “And I’ve always liked plenty of plates spinning.
“We have a crew of young investors who understand social media. I think there’s a need for this.”
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.