If there’s one thing that’s certain in the tumult of social networks today, it is that nothing is certain. Things change, often in unexpected ways, and change fast.
The latest illustration of how fast is Pebble. Two weeks ago, the social network startup announced that it was shutting down on November 1, just shy of a year since it launched as T2 for users with an invitation code. And shut down it did to become the first major casualty in the landscape of alternatives if not successors to X formerly known as Twitter.
Opinions vary widely as to what was the cause or causes of Pebble’s demise. In the October episode of the For Immediate Release podcast that Shel Holtz and I present, recorded on October 29, we led the episode with a discussion about Pebble in the wider context of the challenges new social media platforms face in a market dominated by established players, and the reality that X still holds a grip that’s far stronger than most people realise.
Both Shel and I were users of Pebble, in my case instead of X. I was increasingly using Pebble along with Threads, another potential alternative, launched by Meta a few months ago. I quit X entirely in mid-October.
Despite being a promising alternative, Pebble struggled to carve out a substantial user base amidst fierce competition. The rapid evolution of the competitive landscape, with many platforms offering similar features, heightened the challenge for Pebble to distinguish itself and gain traction. Ultimately, it couldn’t.
Other factors were significant in everything that transpired in Pebble’s brief play, including these realities:
- Pebble’s emphasis on creating a kinder, safer platform with stringent moderation highlighted the delicate balance required to foster open discussions while ensuring user safety and trust. However, this approach likely restricted the extent of open debates and discussions, which are often seen as vital for user engagement on social media platforms.
- In September, T2 was rebranded as Pebble. This act may have inadvertently diluted the platform’s value proposition. The change might have distanced users looking for a direct Twitter alternative, demonstrating the significance of a clear and resonant brand identity in attracting and retaining users. Branding and rebranding efforts need to be meticulously planned and executed to ensure alignment with the platform’s goals and user expectations (something X hasn’t paid much attention to following its rebranding of Twitter).
- The lack of a native mobile app for Pebble underscores the importance of having a robust technical infrastructure to enhance the user experience and engagement. Mobile applications are crucial for user discovery, accessibility, and continuous engagement, especially in a market where users have come to expect seamless mobile experiences. The absence of an official mobile app likely hindered Pebble’s ability to retain and grow its user base.
- The enduring market dominance of X – itself still evolving as Elon Musk continues remaking what was Twitter into something all-embracing in his own image – presents a formidable barrier for new entrants, especially a startup. Established platforms with large user bases and network effects continue to hold significant sway in the social media space, Meta with Threads being a good example: from zero to 100 million users in less than a week. This dominance underscores the necessity for new platforms to offer unique value propositions, innovative features, or distinctive user experiences to attract and retain users.
Initially we called it “T2”, and we later renamed it to “Pebble.” We raised $1.4M from angels in December 2022. We grew it to 20k registered users who have posted 350k posts. At the peak we had 9k MAU and 3k DAU, before we stopped growing. Our traction was insufficient to raise more venture capital, and just as we were going into our fundraise, our DAUs started shrinking. We decided to end our experiment and shut down Pebble on November 1, 2023.Gabor Cselle, November 1, 2023
And so, Pebble is no more as an independent social network startup that tried to build a presence and a community on values and beliefs that most people say actually are important to them in a social network. It wasn’t enough, though, as Cselle noted in his analysis.
Being kinder and safer is not enough of a differentiator, because kindness and safety by themselves aren’t interesting enough.Gabor Cselle, November 1, 2023
And then, something extraordinary happened, signalled in a post from Cselle on a new social network the day before the Pebble shutdown.
If that may seem familiar to you, cast your mind back 17 years to March 21, 2006, and the start of an earlier social network.
A groundswell behind the new Pebble
In what he dubbed “an experiment”, Cselle set up an instance on Mastodon called pebble.social that would be a new home for pebblers (a great moniker for Pebble users). Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows.
Nevertheless, the diaspora of pebblers liked the idea a lot and embraced this experiment with alacrity.
Within 24 hours, a new Pebble arose phoenix-like from the ashes of what had gone before. Today, there are just under 300 users on the new network, myself included. Very small beer compared to, say, X with its apparent 300+ million at one point, but getting big numbers was never a Pebble goal from the start.
No, the goal was absolutely focused on “being kinder and safer”. There’s plenty of that sentiment demonstrated in the Pebble resurrection on Mastodon, perhaps best manifested in the selfless commitment by Blobcat, a pebbler who created a theme for the new Pebble that mirrors what the original Pebble looked like. I’ve installed the theme on my handle.
There’s brand familiarity and continuity!
Above: The new Pebble, looking just like the old Pebble
So what are the chances? Can pebble.social gain traction to become what the original Pebble couldn’t? Is goodwill enough to get started?
I think it’s far too early for such questions never mind answers.
The Pebble co-founded by Gabor Cselle and Sarah Oh was a startup, funded by angel investors. At some point, it would have been intended to become a profitable enterprise. That point never arrived. The new “Pebble Phoenix” is driven by a groundswell of goodwill and positive emotion that continues less than a week after the presence was set up on Mastodon.
It’s important to recognise that X is still a significant player no matter (or maybe because of) the continuing turmoil surrounding this successor to Twitter run by Elon Musk. And Threads is steadily looking more credible every day.
Even if user numbers for X look like they’re in a terminal downward trend, X is still here. For how long is a good question, but it’s here – until it’s not. (Radical thought: or perhaps until a new owner acquires the wreckage with serious intent and ability to rebuild it as Twitter again.)
Meanwhile, enjoy the experiment of a kinder, safer place
I very much like to think that there is a future for a social network that is all about being kinder and safer, the antithesis of X. I think Pebble has every chance of creating such a niche space, given the goodwill on show.
However, no one has an actual plan yet. This is still very much an experiment, fuelled by the goodwill I’ve mentioned a few times.
Setting up a for-profit social network on a Mastodon instance like pebble.social can be a feasible endeavour depending on various factors including goals, resources, and the community it would be aimed to serve. Mastodon is an open-source, decentralised social networking platform that allows anyone to host their own servers (known as instances) with their own moderation policies and community standards.
Lots to consider, though. A few thoughts:
- One way to monetise is to charge users a membership fee for access to the instance. Another is offering premium features for a fee.
- While Mastodon is ad-free by design, nothing prevents instance administrators from implementing their own advertising solutions. However, this will likely go against the ethos of the Mastodon community which values privacy and an ad-free experience.
- Attracting a user base could be challenging given the competition from established social networks, especially X as referenced earlier. However, a niche or unique value proposition could help in building a community – and Pebble would be starting from an already-started foundation if it can really leverage “being kinder and safer”.
- Being in compliance with data protection laws (such as GDPR in Europe) is crucial. Legal compliance in terms of content moderation and handling of illegal content is another important consideration.
- Build an advocacy framework within the use base to empower users to promote Pebble everywhere, something the old Pebble sorely lacked. This will require a well-thought-out marketing strategy and a budget to pay for it.
In these days of possibilities and realistic wishful thinking, my plan is to continue enjoying the kinder and safer place that the present Pebble resurrection, the phoenix, is enabling. It represents a particular niche, one that I value. I’ll also spend time in other places like Threads, Bluesky, Mastodon, LinkedIn and Facebook, all different, with different objectives and different reasons for me to use them and be there.
I believe the days of a centralised, single platform that you frequent exclusively are done for, no matter what Elon Musk says.
And I’ll continue conversations with like-minded supporters. It all just could work.
- Calling Time on X – October 17, 2023
(The digital image at the top was created by DALLE-3 via ChatGPT-4 in response to my simple text prompt: “A majestic purple phoenix arises from the smoking ashes of a terminated social network”. The prompt ChatGPT-4 gave to DALLE-3 was significanrtly evolved: “Photo of a splendid phoenix with deep purple and violet feathers, rising majestically with its wings outstretched among the swirling smoke and glowing ashes of a digital platform’s remains, symbolizing transformation and the start of a new chapter”. Wow.)