A social network has several phases in its life cycle. It starts as a semiexclusive clubhouse with an exciting new mission, fomenting utopian optimism as its membership steadily grows. With enough interest, the network expands rapidly, attracting funding to cover expenses and continually evolving its scope and mission in search of profits. Eventually, the service becomes so bloated, bland or money hungry that it falls out of touch with the needs of its users. A new challenger arrives, and the cycle begins anew.
Over the past few weeks, a new site called Ello has arisen, luring tens of thousands of users who hope it will be different from Web giants such as Facebook. At first blush, Ello seems to fly in the face of the dominant social media paradigm. Its interface is attractive and ad-free, looking like a cross between old-school Twitter and a blogging platform designed by art students. Its manifesto proudly declares, “You are not a product” — a mantra aimed directly at Facebook, Google and Twitter, which offer “free” services that sell massive troves of intimate user data to advertisers under increasingly draconian terms of service. “Collecting and selling your personal information, reading your posts and mapping your social connections for profit is unethical,” Ello’s creators state defiantly. “Ello does not sell data about you to third parties, including advertisers and data brokers.”
Other details seem less than revolutionary. As tech blogger Andy Baio discovered, Ello’s founders accepted $435,000 in funding from a small venture firm called FreshTracks Capital — a data point that was omitted in the site’s info page. In a recent blog post that catalyzed the nascent social network’s first major round of criticism, indie Web advocate Aral Balkan describes Ello’s VC funding as “the nail in its coffin” that will compel its creators (like countless startups before them) to eventually choose between their principles and their solvency. “When you take venture capital, it is not a matter of if you’re going to sell your users, you already have,” he writes.
In other words, Ello’s party was over before it even started. But is it really? Or are we simply expecting too much from the next generation of social networks?
The increasing frustration over existing social media and renewed fears about online privacy made Ello’s arrival both inevitable and impeccably punctual. Last month Facebook enraged the LGBT community after it started deactivating the accounts of drag performers for disobeying its so-called real names policy, leading to what the Daily Dot’s Taylor Hatmaker called “The great gay Facebook exodus.” On Wednesday the company pivoted, apologizing to the LGBT community and reinstating the accounts, but not before thousands of users joined Ello’s invite-only beta site. Facebook recently announced a new ad platform called Atlas, which will track users across the Web and among multiple devices, allowing the company to go head to head with Google. Twitter, meanwhile, has hinted at plans to make the service’s unfiltered timeline more like Facebook’s heavily curated news feed. The thought was so egregious that many users expressed their desire to start paying for the service rather than have it reshaped to appease advertisers.
Cue Ello and its promise of an a la carte “freemium” social network, which has no ads and will allow users to pay for new features as they’re added to the service. The site is now in that optimistic phase of figuring out what it wants to be, and cynics reasonably suspect it’s headed down the same path as those before it — that one day it will become just as terrible as our current social media masters, assuming it survives. Nevertheless, Ello still has that new social network smell, and it’s hard not to bask in its utopian aura. Both Facebook and Twitter had a similar feel when they emerged, before slowly evolving to satisfy the needs of advertisers.
But Ello is not staging a coup, nor did it ever intend to. Even before its venture funding, the fact that it was conceived as a centralized service owned by a company — rather than a distributed network collectively owned by users — precluded it from ever being truly disruptive in the way critics such as Balkan were hoping. You can see a living example of the alternative type of social network in Diaspora, a decentralized anti-Facebook developed by a group of college students that made headlines back in 2010. Like Ello, Diaspora drummed up a good deal of hype in its prime. Unlike Ello, its code is open source, users have complete control over their data, and anyone can host his or her own server. It even introduced features that were eventually incorporated into Google+ and Facebook, such as organizing contacts into groups for granular privacy controls. But Diaspora stagnated to the point that it simply ceased being interesting to most people, including its developers. While the network remains operational (albeit with relatively few users), the team behind it has since disbanded.
Ello isn’t the decentralized social network that will liberate us; it’s a centralized service built on proprietary code that needs servers, maintenance and moderators, and these days that means either being independently wealthy or attracting venture capital. For that reason, it’s possible that both Ello’s hopeful supporters and its disappointed critics simply expect too much of it.
And that’s fine. The media buzz surrounding Ello is proof that people are tired of social media’s status quo and thirsty for an alternative. With any luck, it makes the reigning Web overlords shake in their boots and reconsider, however briefly, the prevailing Silicon Valley business model of mass surveillance and user exploitation. Facebook’s recent backpedaling with the LGBT community seems to suggest that the pressure, at least to a minor degree, is already on. In other words, Ello’s test will not be whether it can save us from Facebook but whether it can stay interesting — and true to its mission — long enough to really move the needle on privacy and user rights.