Ello, Is It You We’re Looking For?
In a “manifesto” that throws some serious shade at Facebook, Ello declares: “Your social network is owned by advertisers. Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data.” Ello promises that they will remain ad-free, that they will minimize their collection of user information, and that they will draw revenue instead from users who elect to use special features.
If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, your regularly scheduled programming of wedding and baby announcements has been momentarily interrupted by a flurry of friends who are proudly introducing their new Ello accounts to the world. Some of them are adopting Ello as a deliberate act of protest against Facebook but most of them seem to be trying out the service without really knowing why they’re doing so. It’s tempting to join them, sure, but I remember this new social networking site back when it was called Google Plus and I’m almost certain that Ello will also become a ghost town within a matter of months.
Despite the fact that we should all be feeling an acute sense of déjà vu right now, Ello is already being touted as a potential “Facebook killer.” Why? For starters, Ello is riding a wave of positive press as the creators actively court the LGBT community with a friendly interview in The Daily Dot and a creepy eyeless smiley face logo that flashes rainbow colors. As Facebook continues to crack down on drag performers and other users who do not use their legal names online, Ello is waiting with open arms to welcome those who feel excluded by Facebook’s “real-name policy.” As a result, a range of media outlets from Jezebel to SF Weekly are observing that “an LGBT exodus from Facebook” is taking place with Ello as the new homeland.
Ello is also trying to appeal to Facebook users who have grown dissatisfied with the rampant advertising and data mining on the service. Over the past few years, Facebook has taken their commitment to advertising over user experience all the way to the bank. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Facebook’s user growth is slowing down but its revenues are still on the rise. Ello hopes to intervene at this turning point in Facebook’s history, poaching potential users who aren’t joining the service anymore and then profiting from them in less invasive ways in an ad-free environment.
But Ello is not the Shangri-La of social networks that it might appear to be at first blush. In its brief time in the spotlight, Ello has already made so many embarrassing missteps that I doubt the social media network will even make it through the next few months. For starters, the Ello beta launched without any privacy controls or blocking options. After a Tumblr post about this oversight went viral, Ello hurriedly sent out an e-mail to users, informing them that “privacy features are coming to Ello very soon” and that Ello will have a “zero tolerance policy” for a wide range of abusive and harassing behaviors.
Whatever features are coming down the pipe, though, it’s still worrisome that the creators required an Internet backlash in order to realize that blocking should be a mandatory feature for any social network. In an interview with The Daily Dot, Ello creator Paul Budnitz said that “as soon as the LBGTQ community started coming on in large numbers, we decided that we needed to add privacy controls and new ways for users to report abusive behavior by others.” Budnitz, it seems, didn’t anticipate that privacy controls would be necessary until marginalized people started joining the network en masse.
But for so many Internet users—especially women, LGBT people, and people of color—privacy features and blocking functionality are not afterthoughts but rather minimum requirements for use. Facebook might know everything about us from the shape of our faces to the patterns of our relationships but at least it still allows us to block abusive exes and hide ourselves from unknown users. Forthcoming features might indeed make Ello more welcoming for folks who typically feel unsafe on the Internet, but the fact that it didn’t even go to beta with blocking in place is a bad omen and also, perhaps, a signal of the social insularity of its creators.
In addition to this backlash from the very users who are supposedly flocking to Ello, the service is also coming under fire from the sex worker community for their initial promise to adopt a zero tolerance policy on pornography. Earlier this week, tech reporter and sex author Violet Blue tweeted out these words of warning to her friends in the sex industry:
Ello developer Justin Gitlin tweeted a series of replies that give us a peek at an Ello scrambling to adapt to the surprising diversity of their potential user base:
Presumably as a result of this and other exchanges, Ello changed their policies around “sexually explicit content” on their Rules page, adding the promise that “NSFW in is development [sic].” Sex workers and erotic artists will just have to wait for their turn to use Ello in the same way they can already use Twitter or Tumblr.
The understated refinement of Ello’s aesthetics also stands in stark contrast to the level of sloppiness with which the service has been trying to meet the needs of its marginalized users over the past few days. The service looks to be more concerned with being chic than it does with being accommodating. If Ello were a person, it would be that fashion-forward friend of yours who invites you to an exclusive party that turns out to be full of awful people. Ello’s struggle for the past few days has been to prove that there is indeed substance beneath its glossy surface.
But even the tone of Ello’s initial messaging around privacy and moderation reeks of a certain privileged detachment. The Rules page goes out of its way to remind users that slurs are “very uncool” and the recent privacy e-mail promises users a way to “report uncool behavior.” If you frequently find yourself on the receiving end of slurs and Internet harassment, you might want to see moderation treated with a little more gravitas and a little less posturing than this. Slurs do more than harsh people’s vibes—they also drive marginalized users off of social networks as fast as they join them.
Much like your fashion-forward friend, too, Ello has a huge trust fund even if they are currently acting like they can barely afford to pay the rent. Web developer Andy Baio did some digging in Securities and Exchange Commission files and discovered that Ello has nearly half a million dollars in seed money from venture capitalists, a circumstance that will likely structure the future of the service. As Baio writes (on his Ello page, ironically enough): “Unless they have a very unique relationship with their investors, Ello will inevitably be pushed towards profitability and an exit, even if it compromises their current values.”
In order for Ello to survive without ads and provide a return on the initial investment, it will almost certainly have to turn to the dark side at some point. At the end of the day, Ello is still a venture capitalist in artist’s clothing.
Once we all get to know Ello a little better, I’m sure that this initial honeymoon period will start to wind down. We’ll return to social networks that collect our data but also provide us with more robust tools for controlling unwanted contact. We’ll resign ourselves to the fact that we can’t escape the data mining tendrils of late capitalism. We’ll become disenchanted with the deceptively minimalist aesthetic of a venture capital project, the same way that, say, Chipotle’s sparse industrial decor has started to ring hollow. And before you know it, we’ll all be saying goodbye to Ello and mourning the loss of yet another Facebook killer.