U.S. Markets closed

Silicon Valley veteran: Facebook has become a ‘digital slot machine’

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer
Gina Bianchini speaks onstage during Vanity Fair’s Founders Fair. Getty Images

Call it the paradox of the 21st century: Social media and technology are actually destroying our sense of connectedness, according to some research.

Gina Bianchini has been on a mission to change this notion for as long as she’s been an entrepreneur. Her latest venture, Mighty Networks, helps you connect with others by location, topics you care about or other defining categories like homeschoolers or parents whose children have Type 1 diabetes.

She remains skeptical that existing players like Facebook (FB), Snap (SNAP) and Twitter (TWTR) actually help create robust communities.

“What fascinates me is that everybody in Silicon Valley thinks about network effects and the power of networks, but for everyone actually using the platforms, it’s seen as social media,” Bianchini said at Vanity Fair’s inaugural Founders Fair summit in Brooklyn on Thursday.

“In building and scaling these companies [like Facebook],” she added, “we gave up the most important part — the network.”

‘Facebook sabotages deep interests’

Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 Conference. Stephen Lam | Reuters.

Bianchini’s comments about her 2-week-old social network come a day after Facebook’s F8 developer conference, where executives touted the connected and unified nature of its platform, including forthcoming features like Spaces, an app for the Oculus Rift and Oculus Touch.

“Facebook has a monopoly. It has tremendous platform power, which is why we’re seeing its competitors suffer. But fundamentally, we all need to ask ourselves, ‘is this it?’ Do we want to live in a world where networks are codified, solidified, getting deeper and more entrenched around the things that divide us?” she asked.

She said the fact that users only spend a few seconds on any post they encounter adds to the idea that Facebook has become a “digital slot machine.”

Bianchini published a post on Medium, “The awesome power of deep interests,” on April 5, the day of Mighty Networks’ launch, in which she argues that “Facebook sabotages deep interests.” She acknowledges the network is a great place for staying in touch with old and latent friends. However, Facebook’s Groups feature gets lost in the shuffle of the dominating feed, she said.

Other niche social networks

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

She embarked on her entrepreneurial journey in 2005 with Ning, a platform for individuals and organizations to create custom social networks, which she co-founded with venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. She left the company five years later but carried the urgent desire to create a real, interest-based community online.

Bianchini wants to fill a void that Facebook left open by Facebook — the ability to build new yet meaningful connections. Anyone can create a niche group through Mighty Networks, though this could make the network too localized for some users.

While Facebook has been trying to scale up, plenty of startups — including Mighty Networks — have tried to provide more exclusive, smaller-scale ways to form virtual communities.

Take Ello, originally billed as a more exclusive Facebook. It has become a place for artists to connect. Meanwhile, UK-based Rich Kids charges a membership of 1000 euros per month and targets, well, rich kids trying to buy exposure and fame. Most recently, the founder of Ello launched Wuu, which he calls “the revolutionary private messaging app that you can’t join.”

All are vying to tap into niches that a network of 2 billion could simply never accommodate. But many have failed to gain prominence, proving that ubiquity fuels Facebook’s dominance.

‘An alternative option in this social media landscape’

But if there’s any one individual who might be able to carve out a space in the Facebook-dominated social realm, it’s Bianchini.

On Facebook, we’re whizzing through our feeds so quickly that we don’t have time to care about any one post, she argues. Facebook aims to have quick updates that reinforce the desire to stay in the feed, she contends. This is where she sees the opportunity for Mighty Networks.

“We need to connect to new people who have a shared interest that is deep and important and you choose to stay engaged for a long period of time, not because you’re looking at lots of different inputs but because you’re actually able to start a conversation with someone.

“We need an alternative option in this social media landscape,” she said.

Melody Hahm is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

Read more from Melody: