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Vero and the pop-up restaurant theory of social networks

February 28 · Issue #93 · View online
The Interface
Every year or so, a promising new social network bubbles up to the surface. You can probably name the biggest of these: Mastodon, Peach, Ello. I’ve come to think of them as pop-up restaurants. Their arrival in the neighborhood stirs momentary excitement among the early-adopter crowd, who enjoy the novelty of the experience and the sensation of being first. But pop-up restaurants are not built to last, and a few weeks later everyone goes back to eating Chipotle.
Over the weekend, a new pop-up arrived in the App Store. Vero, a photo- and recommendation-sharing app for iOS and Android, rocketed to the top of the charts. Unlike most pop-up networks, Vero was rather old: it launched in 2015 and had fewer than 75,000 downloads when it suddenly took off. As of today, it had 1 million.
The app appeared to take off initially among a group of users who are frustrated with Instagram. Vero has a strictly chronological feed; Instagram’s is ranked, which rankles a small but vocal group of users. (Mashable reporter Kerry Flynn found more than 500,000 Instagram posts tagged #Vero.) Very also promises to stay ad-free forever, monetizing through subscriptions and e-commerce.
Normally, this would be the time in the news cycle where we would be celebrating the unlikely emergence of a challenger to Facebook’s throne, and asking whether Vero could last past the initial flurry of media attention. Instead, though, we’re talking about … slave labor?
Here’s Taylor Lorenz on Ayman Hariri, the app’s 39-year-old billionaire CEO. (He’s the son of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.) 
Before beginning his social-media escapades, Hariri served as deputy chief executive officer and vice chairman of his family’s now-defunct construction company, Saudi Oger, a business that was the source of most of his family’s wealth.
Throughout his time there, the company was plagued with problems and allegations of abuse; under Hariri’s watch, over 31,000 complaints of nonpayment of wages were filed against the Saudi Oger.
The company was so negligent that in some cases the Saudi Arabian government had to step in and provide food and basic living supplies to workers spurned by the company.
Gizmodo reported that Vero was promoting Ayman Hariri as deputy CEO of Saudi Oger as recently as 2016. After I made inquiries, the company sent me a 25-page legal filing from 2014 in which Hariri formally divested from the company.
It’s hard to know at this point whether the controversy over Hariri’s background will end Vero’s rise, or simply attract more eyeballs to it. I spoke with the CEO this week, and will share our conversation here tomorrow. 
In the meantime, the app is buckling under the weight of its new users, and it’s barely usable. Nearly every button I tapped today returned an error message, and my efforts to post messages all timed out.
In this, Vero is very much like the pop-up networks that have come before it: at the moment they receive the most attention they’re ever likely to get, they collapse under the weight. If Hariri’s past doesn’t tank Vero, the broken app will. 

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