Last week, right-wing social network Parler was sold to a media group called Starboard. The company Shut down parler indefinitely to “undergo a strategic assessment”. It marks the end of a long and tumultuous saga for the conservative social media company that was once seen as a haven from mainstream apps like Twitter—including a botched deal with the Nazi sympathizer formerly known as Kanye West, ties to domestic terrorism, and temporary bans from app stores. Speaking to Gizmodo, Starboard CEO Ryan Coyne said Parler’s future is uncertain, but one thing is clear: politics is not his priority.
“No sane person thinks that a conservative Twitter clone is a viable business model,” Coyne said.
Coyne, a 35-year-old Cornell graduate who got his start in finance and now lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is not a leftist. Starboard’s businesses include right-wing news sites American Wire News and BizPac Review, and a brand called We the People, the “wine for conservatives.” Coyne said free speech will still be part of Parler’s mission, but the alignment with conservative values appears to be a business opportunity for the entrepreneur, not a plan to advance political goals. Speaking to Coyne, it’s clear that he doesn’t want to be seen as a Republican arsonist. He’s here to make money.
“This is not a politically motivated advocacy group. The goal is business first,” Coyne said. “Parler needs to be a self-sustaining business that generates the profitability needed to grow.”
Taking a social media platform offline is guaranteed to evict many, if not most, users, and it’s a sign that radical change is about to happen. The CEO said he’s not sure what the new parler will look like or if it will be its own social media platform by the time it’s completed.
“One possible idea is licensing the technology to individual communities that want their own white-label social media service,” said Coyne. “Hypothetically, you can imagine the moderators r/wall street bets want their own website where they can set all the rules. It’s a reasonable thing for us to evaluate.”
Coyne may be singing the opening lines of a dirge for the so-called “alt-tech” movement. Conservatives are celebrating apps like Parler, Gettr, and Donald Trump’s Truth Social that present themselves as alternatives to the big tech boogeymen. But what really unites them isn’t politics, their tiny user bases, and a complete failure to make money. So far, Parler and Truth Social have been doing peanuts running clickbait sponsored content and gutter ads. Most of the best-known alt-tech companies are simply conservative political charities fueled by billionaire activists, including Parler. The insurgent social network was once kept afloat by Republican heiress Rebekah Mercer, who initially tried to keep her involvement a secret.
Some of Parler’s staunchest supporters, including former employees, are reportedly outraged by the platform’s new direction. According to a report by the Daily BeastParler fans and ex-employees discuss lLaunching a competing version of the site. “I will pray for them‘ Coyne said. Dennis Harrison, a former chief engineer at Parler who is quoted in the Daily Beast article, did not respond to a request for comment.
Parler began in 2018 when the backlash against social media content moderation reached a boiling point. But with Elon Musk in the saddle at Twitter, it’s hard to argue that there’s no place online for the kind of “free speech” the right is celebrating.
“Parler has its roots as a conservative Twitter alternative, but to compete as a social media company, you have to be more than that,” Coyne said. “Our place in the ecosystem is determined by the value we bring by expanding Parler’s technology.”
But even compared to his generally unsuccessful alt-tech peers, Parler languished. For a moment, Parler was the darling of conservatives from Senator Ted Cruz and Alex Jones to extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Nuclear Weapons Division, a domestic neo-Nazi terror network. But Parler fell behind after Apple and Google temporarily banned it from their app stores Connections to the January 6 riots. The company ran into legal trouble for promoting the insurgency, despite Paler reporting threats of violence in the capital more than 50 times. To cite just one example, attorney and Trump supporter Lin Wood Parler gained weight call to murder by Vice President Mike Pence.
Coyne denied his company’s history and its association with Capitol rioters: “Parler, in whatever form, will not be a safe haven for those who engage in or otherwise plan violence of any kind.”
Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) said he would buy the besieged platform in October 2022, but Parler canceled the deal the same day, Ye declared his love for Hitler in an interview. In January 2023, Parler fired almost everyone his employees.
The future also looks bleak for Parler’s brothers. Twitter and Meta have restored Donald Trump’s accounts. The former president has an exclusivity deal with Truth Social that ends in June, reports said Trump is looking forward to returning to his beloved Twitter. Meanwhile even leading popular MAGA figures do not find an audience on apps like Gab and Gettr.
What makes social media and communication platforms successful are the network effects that arise when many people use them. It’s no fun owning the libraries in an echo chamber that doesn’t contain any libraries. It turns out that running a social media platform is difficult and deliberately excluding half the population isn’t a successful business strategy, as Coyne himself noted.
If Coyne can turn Parler into something people want to use, he’ll soon be grappling with the problem that business maverick Musk doesn’t seem to understand. Censorship is just a mean word for content moderation, which is desired by users and demanded by the market. Musk has gone from dipping his toes in the conservative water to diving headfirst. Self-confessed neo-Nazis find a comfortable home on Musk’s Twitter while Reporters will be banned for committing obvious journalistic acts, such as Tweeting links to their articles in major publications like Wired and the Washington Post.
By and large, Americans don’t like Nazis and would rather not hear of them. Meta, Google and all major advertisers don’t want to be associated with hate speech and misinformation. It’s not because they’re “woke,” it’s because they’re businesses and a large proportion of their customers don’t like insults. Even if you leave the Nazis out of the equation, there’s a lot of perfectly legal content that even the world’s self-proclaimed “lovers of free speech” finds difficult to access. Take the pro-ana community, a group of people who believe that anorexia is a good thing and use social media to promote it. Gizmodo asked Coyne where he would draw the line.
“I would certainly never support something like that [pro-ana], and nobody wants to own a company that does. I hope these people are getting the mental health services they need,” Coyne said. “But at the end of the day, it is an individual’s right to seek people who will validate their opinion. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a communication platform to prevent anything and everything that could be considered ‘bad’, as there is no better word.”
However, there is a difference between a communication platform and a user-generated social media platform that promotes content using an algorithm. “If you’re recommending content, you need to make sure you’re not recommending harmful content,” Coyne said. “But for various reasons, I don’t know if Parler will have this type of recommendation engine in its new form, whatever that might be.”