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As controversy swirls, social network Vero is closing in on 3 million users

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Can Ayman Hariri’s social network outlast its moment in the spotlight?

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Last week, three-year-old social network Vero had fewer than 150,000 downloads. As of today, it has nearly 3 million, driven by frustration with Instagram and a feature set that its founder says enables a more authentic form of self-expression.

But as the app has grown in popularity, the company and its founder have come under scrutiny. The arrival of millions of new users overwhelmed the company’s servers, rendering it all but unusable for much of this week. A controversy over Vero’s expansive terms of service, which gave the company wide latitude over how it used content uploaded by users, drove some new arrivals away. And the company’s founder, 39-year-old billionaire Ayman Hariri, has been dogged by questions about labor issues at a company owned by his family.

As a social network competing against a deep-pocketed and ruthless competitor in Facebook, Vero would face a difficult road even without the difficulties that cropped up over the past week. With challenges mounting, has its fate already been sealed?

Hariri, an affable and earnest CEO who started Vero with two childhood friends, says the app’s best days are still ahead. “We’re here to stay,” says Hariri, the son of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. “We’re not doing this as a fly-by-night thing. We may or may not catch on. We’re really sincere about what it is we’re trying to build. And we have big plans ahead.”

Of course, Hariri is not the first startup CEO to see a surge of interest in his app, followed by a steady and permanent decline. Social networks have been particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon: in recent years, we’ve seen Secret, Ello, Peach, Meerkat, and Mastodon come and go.

I’ve come to think of social apps like these 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 the novelty fades, the early adopters disperse, and a few weeks later everyone goes back to eating Chipotle.

For Vero, the novelty begins with its strictly chronological feed. Since Instagram introduced a ranked feed in 2016, a small but vocal subset of users have demanded the option to see photos in reverse order from when they were posted. Like Instagram, Vero also allows you to take and post photos. According to Hariri, it found an initial audience among cosplayers, who appreciated that the app let them pinch and zoom to magnify photos. (Instagram requires you to pinch continuously to magnify photos.)

Cosplayers attracted other creative communities, including makeup artists, tattoo artists, and skateboarders. All of this delighted Hariri, a devoted nerd who owns one of the world’s largest vintage comic book collections. (He parlayed his fandom into a bit part as an extra in Batman v Superman.)

Beyond photos, Vero also lets you post a link, your current location, or recommendations for movies, books, and music. There are granular controls for both sharing and following. On the sharing side, you can control the audience of your post on a sliding scale from “close friend” to followers. You can also choose which categories of your friends’ posts you want to see; it’s possible to follow someone only for their music recommendations, for example. The app also includes chat and commenting features similar to what you find on Instagram.

“We wanted to build something that stood for something beyond a gimmicky, one-feature thing,” Hariri said. “We wanted it to be an extension of how you want to express yourself.” By limiting the audience for users’ posts, Vero hopes to encourage a less socially fraught kind of sharing. On other social apps, Hariri said, “you’re performing for the crowd. Research shows that people are becoming more and more negatively affected by having to do that all the time. We wanted to create an online social network ... that allows you to just be yourself.”

But as users have flocked to the app, Hariri’s past business dealings have received scrutiny. In a Twitter thread, developer Pasquale D’Silva highlighted Hariri’s ties to a family construction firm, Saudi Oger, which shut down last year after more than 30,000 workers sued it for unpaid wages. After I asked about Hariri’s time at Saudi Oger, which was started by his father and later run by his brother, he sent me a 25-page document showing that he had divested from the firm in 2014. “At the end of the day, that stuff happened when I wasn’t at the company,” he said. “I had left before that. I was pursuing my dream.”

After topping the iOS charts earlier in the week, Vero fell to No. 11 on Thursday. It’s unclear whether what began as an Instagram protest can build an enduring audience. After initially saying it would begin charging a subscription fee to new users after the first 1 million people joined, the company backed off on Wednesday, saying it would not begin charging “until further notice.” In the meantime, it makes money by taking an affiliate fee when someone buys books, movies, and other products they find on Vero.

For his part, Ayman remains optimistic. The last time we spoke, the musician Kiiara had just joined the service — enticed, he said, by the prospect of reaching her fans without having to make an end run around an algorithm. “So many artists are coming on board,” he said. “So many people who are frustrated with the way other social networks have behaved in the past. Not being able to access their own audiences. And just the ability to be themselves on an online social network that mimics the real-world social network.”