Ello is the hot new thing. The anti-Facebook. The great social-media crusader who — as its creators promise, in a flowery manifesto — will seize our humanity back from the grinding gears of the Internet machine.
Its minimalist design is nice, of course. The absence of ads is oddly refreshing, and many people have rightly praised the start-up’s progressive name-use policy — one that lets LGBT users and other concerned groups register any name they like.
But at its core, Ello’s appeal is all theoretical: People like Ello not because it’s a prettily designed network without ads and user-tracking, but because it represents an idea. An ethic. A way of existing on the Internet in which said existence is meaningful, and not merely for the major technology companies who grind our interests and memories into data for marketers.
“You are the product that’s bought and sold,” the company rails in its opening manifesto. “We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency.”
But when you scrutinize that string of buzzwords a little more closely, it looks less like a raison d’etre and more like a web of unlikely assumptions. Ello’s founders assume, for instance, that — given the opportunity, which they already have elsewhere — people will be constructive and pro-social online. They assume the general public has an active interest in issues of online privacy and identity. And, in an apparent business flaw that’s been much analyzed already, they assume people will generously shell out money to support that interest, even if they see little to no personal benefit, and even if they don’t have to.
Ello’s founders call it idealism. It looks a lot like naivete.
For starters, large social networks — with servers and programmers and office space — do not run on dreams and fairy dust. Typically they run on ads, which Ello doesn’t have. In lieu of ad revenue, Ello has suggested it might adopt the Radiohead approach — pay-what-you-like, or what-you-think-it’s-worth. It’s more or less the model employed by a number of individual bloggers, podcasters and livestreamers, as well as by public radio and nonprofit media — who may also sell ads and solicit grants or corporate donations to cover the vast swaths of budget that users don’t.
The difference, of course, is that Ello won’t have grants or corporate donors, and the amount of money it costs to run a social network dwarfs the monetary needs of some guy on Twitch by a factor of a zillion to one.
It’s also unclear if the general Internet-browsing public — a.k.a., the very people Ello wants to save from Facebook and its ilk — really care about being saved from Facebook, at all. According to a 2013 Pew poll, 94 percent (!) of adult Internet users have done nothing to hide their personal data from Facebook, et al, which doesn’t exactly evidence the widespread adoption of Ello’s pay-what-you-like principles.
There’s a bigger issue here, as well: Ello’s (charming, but unprovable) assumption that this same generalized Internet public, with all its vagaries and amoralities and documented evils, wants only for a creative, collaborative, life-affirming online space where everything is beauty, and everyone plays nice.
“We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment,” the manifesto reads. “Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate — but a place to connect, create and celebrate life.”
In that wildly optimistic spirit, Ello launched in beta without any way to block abusive users or flag inappropriate content. It’s discouraging hate speech and other “uncool” unpleasantness, going so far as to block abusive IP addresses from accessing the site, but it doesn’t elaborate on how moderation will work or who will do it. At present, Ello has one e-mail address where users can send complaints; no flagging, no abuse system, no dedicated moderation team. It’s almost as if Ello’s founders are all young white men who haven’t experienced the Internet’s dark, and surprisingly vast, underbelly. (Oh, wait — they are all young white men!)
The Web incubates plenty of beauty and community and generosity, of course — all the things Ello’s founders assumed in the creation of their “anti-Facebook.” To claim otherwise wouldn’t just be cynical — it’s flat-out, factually wrong.
But is there enough good on the Internet to populate and *fund* a mainstream social network? Is there enough idealism to push back against Facebook, the $200-billion behemoth that — even as I type! — is rolling out a brand-new and ever more encroaching ad platform?
I’d like the answer to be yes, as would Ello’s impassioned, oh-so-principled founders. But the Web has a way of ripping your ideals away from you. And Ello, even at this early stage, looks open to corruption — or failure.