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While Facebook Flounders, Women Build Their Own Social Networks

May 2, 2018, 11:46 AM UTC

In the midst of all the hubbub about Facebook privacy concerns, another social network launched over the weekend. That network, called Maverick, isn’t trying to compete with the Menlo Park-based giant, though. Instead, it’s focused on serving just one subset of the population: tween girls.

Why that specific group? “During early adolescence, the majority of girls stop raising their hands, participating in sports and extra-curricular activities, taking risks, and stepping into leadership roles,” says Catherine Connors, the company’s co-founder and chief content officer. “In short, they stop believing in themselves.”

The research supports this: A 2013 study by the Dove Self-Esteem Project showed that 47% of girls between 11 and 14 refused to take part in activities that will show off their bodies in any way. A survey of 3,000 children by the American Association of University Women found that the dropoff is somewhere in the late stages of childhood. “Girls aged eight and nine are confident, assertive, and feel authoritative about themselves. Yet most emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, constrained views of their future and their place in society, and much less confidence about themselves and their abilities,” according to the AAUW report. The group’s research finds that 60% of elementary school girls say they are “happy the way I am,” but only 29% of high school girls agreed with that statement.

The goal of the new platform is to encourage girls to engage with both its content and one another, says Connors. The mobile app is structured around a set of tasks that a user must complete in order to unlock the next levels. These challenges, which are explained by community influencers in short video clips, include designing a “freak flag” and sharing a challenge that you’ve overcome. Users can see and comment on one another’s responses to the challenges, but unlike Facebook, where users collect “likes,” or Instagram, where favored posts rack up hearts, Maverick doesn’t use social affirmation as a currency. While girls can give each other badges, they cannot see other’s, an attempt to eliminate the tendency to compare and compete.

Perhaps more importantly—at least from the perspective of privacy watchers—Maverick does not run ads, instead relying on a “freemium” model similar to that of LinkedIn, where users can upgrade to access certain features. Brooke Chaffin, the company’s co-founder and CEO, says Maverick collects the minimum amount of data to create user profiles—name, age, and location—and that the company will not share any user information with third parties. She does note, however, that due to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, Maverick must send a request for consent to parents of children under 13, a process that requires a social security number and street address.

Maverick uses community managers to keep inappropriate or unkind content off the site—and users have the ability to flag questionable material. In fact, Chaffin says, while the co-founders were initially worried that kids would not like adults getting overly involved, their beta group “repeatedly told us that they want a safety net; they want to feel like the risk of bullying is reduced.”

Chaffin and Connors, who met while they were executives at The Walt Disney Company, have spent years talking to and creating products for girls. Chaffin spent three years as a senior vice president of Women & Family at Disney Interactive (the parent company’s segment that creates and sells related merchandise and content), overseeing the launch of physical products and live experiences that catered to that group. Connors was the editor-in-chief of Disney Interactive’s Women & Family platform and is a social theory scholar whose work focused on girls and women. The pair raised $2.7 million from Heroic Ventures, with added investments from BBG Ventures and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.

Maverick may be the newest, but it’s not the only company that believes that the current social networking giants don’t serve women as well as they should—and that a lucrative opening exists for someone to come along and do it better.

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There’s an increasingly common hypothesis that the breadth of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit means that they are not, in fact, creating social bonds. “Having a thousand acquaintances sharing the best version of themselves is vanity—not community,” says PivotNorth Capital general partner Tim Connors, an investor in Chairman Mom, a subscription social media platform for working mothers. He believes that the next iteration of social networks will be more closely modeled after longstanding successful offline networks such as AARP, Rotary International, and even support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

“A lot of a reason Facebook has failed to build our communities is because it wasn’t designed by someone who had built an offline social network first,” he says. “When folks try to optimize for time on site, that’s at odds with building communities and building kinship among people.”

Paradoxically, while women use most major social networks more than men do (the exception being Reddit), they are also twice as likely as men to say that they have been harassed online because of their gender. Sarah Lacy, founder of Chairman Mom, summarizes the current state-of-play this way: “Women are the largest consumers on social media across the board, but also the most abused population across the board.”

Chairman Mom, which launched to the public last month, allows women to ask and answer each other’s questions anonymously. While anonymity often encourages trolling, Lacy believes the nature of her subscription business model is a major deterrent to abusers: “You have to be a really dedicated troll to put down $5 a month to abuse women.”

Keeping trolls away is just one in a slew of reasons why social networks are moving away from ad-based revenue. “If you look at our portfolio, we have very very few investments that are based on an advertising revenue model,” says BBG Ventures president Susan Lyne. “It’s really because Facebook and Google are such dominant players in the digital ad business that it’s increasingly difficult to break out with that business model.”

Then there’s the simple matter of user experience. Michelle Kennedy, founder of Peanut, a one-year-old app that aims to help mothers connect with each other (think Tinder for moms), believes that ad-based models lead companies to ignore user behavior and needs. Asking users to pay, on the other hand, forces companies to create better products. “If you’re not delivering value, no one’s going to pay for your product, much less tell their friends about it,” she notes.

And that is, of course the key challenge of building social networks: That people want to be where their friends are. One-year-old Peanut is currently at 325,000 users, month-old Chairman Mom is about 1,000, and three-day-old Maverick is still so young that its founders don’t want to share that information.

Will they ever be as big as Facebook? Probably not. But if users are willing to pay for them, they don’t have to be.