Natasha Lennard: What the Hell is Ello?

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 9.57.15 PMBy Natasha Lennard. Reprinted with permission from Vice.

I found myself a stranger in a strange land. I didn’t know the way around, or how to find friends. But it was not so different from places I had lived before, so landmarks and passages soon felt familiar. The people looked the same; I didn’t need to learn a new language. And I was not alone in my explorations; many people I knew arrived about the same time.

I’m not sure whether this new place, Ello, will be a brief vacation or a new home for our cyberlives.

For readers uninitiated to the latest excitable corner of the internet, Ello is a new social network that has been attracting considerably more attention than your average start-up. It technically launched six months ago, but the invitation-only site garnered buzz this week as its founders began sending out public invitations just in time to ride the latest wave of anti-Facebook sentiment. The media narrative is that Ello is emerging as the new, more ethical alternative to Facebook; a back-to-basics David of social networking set to slay the Silicon Valley Goliath.

It’s a good story, but it’s probably not true. Whether Ello will be more than a flash in the internet’s pan is as yet unknown.

To describe a site like Ello without referring to already existing social media platforms would be like trying to describe a new color — you couldn’t do it without talking about other colors. So, Ello is something like a blend of Twitter and Tumblr, with a Facebook network-style premise. It pitches itself as “simple, beautiful, and ad free.” (It’s not that simple, but it is beautiful in a Danish Modern kind of way, and there are no ads yet.)

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Ello, unlike its predecessors, was created by tech designers — one founder is a designer toy maker — not tech developers. Yet this is a small difference that lies primarily in sensibility, not ideology.

“These are still ‘corporate’ types,” social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson told VICE News. “We’re still talking about white men who likely live in buildings with exposed brick. It’s not a big break from what we’ve seen before, maybe a minute step in the right direction.”

The site comes replete with a “manifesto” barely deserving of the name: A few short paragraphs that might as well read, “We are not Facebook.” It ends: “We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life. You are not a product.”

Predictions that Ello will make a Friendster of Facebook — that’s a joke for the oldies — ignore the fact that most Baby Boomers will not be joining Ello and abandoning their online family photo repositories.

This seems a direct dig at Facebook in light of the recent scandal surrounding emotional manipulation studies carried out on its users, as well as a string of privacy issues surrounding the company’s passing on of user information to its wealth of advertisers. The promise of an “ad free” social network certainly appeals to users tired of feeds littered with promotional content. But it would be going too far to call Ello the “ethical” social network.

Firstly, Ello is new and full of big promises. Some media reports this week suggested that the site was not taking investor cash. This is not so — the founders have already garnered one round of VC funding. FreshTracks Capital reportedly put up $435,000 of seed funding earlier this year. That’s not much and it will run out fast, so the guys behind Ello — and it is all guys — will have to find more cash soon. And nothing bends ethical convictions more than pecuniary need.

Andy Baio, technologist and former chief technology officer of Kickstarter, warned of Ello’s shakey funding model in, yes, a post on Ello:

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. Sometimes, this push comes subtly in the form of advice and questions in emails, phone calls, and chats over coffee. Sometimes, as more direct pressure from the board. (FreshTracks’ Managing Director sits on their board.) Or, if things go bad, by replacing the founders.

The bottom line here is the bottom line; it seems unlikely that Ello won’t at least face challenges to compromise its policies in the name of financial sustainability. At present, Ello founders vow that user data will not be passed on or sold to outside parties. It’s a compelling promise, but not one I’d count on. It remains prudent to keep sensitive or private information away from social media sites.

To be sure, Ello is not — and does not present itself to be — a more private social network. It is, as such, a social network in a very basic sense: Its content is of and for the public. More privacy settings may come in the future, but as it stands there are no options for private communications on Ello. The platform is clean cut, where Facebook and Twitter are messy. At this point, following a string of privacy scandals and ad hoc responses, Facebook’s privacy settings are labyrinthine at best; just how private “direct messaging” on Twitter really is has been a matter of legal contention when court subpoenas have demanded user information be handed over. Ello keeps it simple — every user can see anything posted.

Especially in its fledgling beta stage, Ello is not a cure for the ills of other social networks. It does, however, have some features that make it a logical receptacle for communities upset at existing online platforms. It strikes me as no accident that Ello made a publicity push one week after Facebook made headlines for its controversial “real names” policy.

Facebook has always required the use of legal names, the recent enforcement of which enraged drag and queer communities. Dozens of drag performers were asked by Facebook to change their profiles to show their legal names or risk losing their accounts. The policy shows a grand disregard for the fact that many individuals opt to use chosen names, either for protection or preference.

Ello stepped in where Facebook failed and welcomed the queer exodus. On Ello, you can pick your name, and there’s no prompts to put birthday, gender, marital status, or jobs in one’s profile. Ello has also, smartly, proclaimed itself porn-friendly. “We are open to NSFW content,” one founder tweeted. Praise be.

So, with Ello, we can hope for more sexy content and less confusion about what content is for private or public consumption. But this is no birth of an online revolution, just a new service. Predictions that Ello will make a Friendster of Facebook — that’s a joke for the oldies — ignore the fact that most Baby Boomers will not be joining Ello and abandoning their online family photo repositories. Joining Ello also by no means entails leaving Facebook. “Different services play different roles, and that’s a good thing,” Jurgenson said.

The social media theorist also pointed out the real limitation on Ello’s ability to upturn our cyberlives. Its founding team is not only all male and seemingly all white, but this is also a detail that they felt needed no addressing at the time of launch. It’s the sort of privilege that sees itself as unmarked. It’s the sort of subject position that does not see the need for a “block” button on a social network (although Ello’s team is being responsive to early criticism and plans to add a “block” option).

It is not their fault they’re white and male, but failure to acknowledge a lack of diversity suggests that, once again, the driving force behind social networking does not reflect the complicated workings of hierarchy, power, and vulnerability that shape the very social space a site like Ello aims to mirror and mediate. “They are creating a social product with a political manifesto, without good knowledge of the social,” Jurgenson said. “The lack of diversity also applies to expertise — social media creators tend to all come from the same background and the same professional spheres.”

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Ello may well build itself into a robust, useful, and ethical space for mediating social interactions. (And I look forward to lots of Ello porn.) But it will not fulfill some cybernetic dream of freedom and liberation through online connectivity; that sort of tech-libertarian fantasy already seems as nostalgic as Ello’s simplisitic design.

A great Eileen Myles poem includes the line, “All the things I embrace as new are in fact old things, rereleased.” But, new to Ello, I embrace the rerelease, and agree with Jurgenson that this is a valuable moment if only for prodding our imagination about how we might want to relate online. “Why shouldn’t something I have always known be the very best there is,” Myles asks in the same poem. In thinking about Ello, I agree. But she was talking about love, not a website.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard; or friend on Ello: @natashalennard

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