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I’m fascinated by Ello because it reminds me of when the social web was still new

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Warning: This post may contain statements that sound like an old person lecturing younger readers about how things were better back in the day. I’d like to apologize for that in advance.

Unless you’ve been holed up in a bunker somewhere, you’ve probably heard about Ello, the new social network/platform/website that launched recently and has swept through the social web like a whirlwind. You may even have read one of the dozens of blog posts and news articles about it, including some criticizing its founders for taking venture capital investment after posting a manifesto about the need for freedom, and some that seem to see it as just the latest flash-in-the-pan.

Some or even all of those views may be true. For what it’s worth, the founders of the site — Paul Budnitz and Todd Berger — have told my colleague Carmel DeAmicis and others that pressure to monetize Ello won’t be a problem, despite having raised almost half a million dollars from venture investors, something that blogger Andy Baio of Waxy.org was the first to notice.

A few of the site’s venture backers have also given interviews in which they say they are long-term investors who are primarily interested in the health of the site and building a useful service, not in cashing out as quickly as possible. So perhaps there is a chance that Ello won’t become over-run with banner ads or sponsored posts (the founders say they plan to use a freemium model).

It’s not you, Facebook, it’s me

Business models aside, I’ve been kind of fascinated by Ello since it launched, in part because it seemed to attract a substantial group of users in my social network over a very short space of time — much more so than other networks like App.net, a previous attempt at replacing Twitter with a more open platform. Why is that? I think my friend Om put his finger on it when he said that this frenzy of interest says more about people’s dissatisfaction with the current networks than it does about Ello.

That seems even more likely to be the case because Ello is so difficult to use, and so frustratingly designed: for a site that was founded by artists and designers, and one that seems to have appealed to many early tech adopters and developers, it can be annoying in dozens of small ways. The search function doesn’t really work, you can’t find comment threads very easily — even ones you have participated in — and it periodically just refuses to do something no matter how hard you try.

So why on earth would anyone want to use this new thing? The easy answer is that it’s new, but I think it also fills a kind of yawning void in some users — a void that has been created by a number of factors, including the corporatization not just of Facebook and Twitter but the entire social web. The tools we used to love for their freedom seem more and more constrained — and not designed for us, but for advertisers.

A chance to start over again

As I said when Ello first arrived, I kind of like the fact that it’s hard to use and doesn’t really work properly most of the time, and is filled with a lot of weirdos and cranks. It reminds me of when blogs were new — before they became giant media entities that had to toe the bottom line — or when Twitter had just launched and didn’t work most of the time, and the only people who used it were geeks and nerds.

Ello

I remember something that Microsoft researcher danah boyd said when Chatroulette first came out, and people were complaining about how it seemed to be just random people displaying their genitals to strangers — which was undoubtedly true. But boyd said that despite all that, she kind of liked it because it was so anarchic and weird, and reminded her of when the whole web was that way.

I feel the same about Twitter and Facebook — although Facebook has always been a much more tightly-controlled experience, even before it started selling ads and Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire. But Twitter seems so grown up now, partnering with TV networks and showing you content you may not even want, that it just doesn’t seem the same.

One of the fascinating things about Twitter when it was new was that literally no one had any clue what it was, or what it was good for (if anything) or what it would become, and that includes the founders of the company, as my friend Nick Bilton has chronicled in his book Hatching Twitter. And out of that chaos came something amazing, something that succeeded almost in spite of itself.

New things make us question assumptions

That’s the kind of feeling I get from Ello: not so much that it shows signs of being something hugely successful, but that it’s such a raw, experimental network at this point that it could become anything — or nothing. And that’s interesting. It makes it hard to use, but there’s a sense of freedom and possibility as well.

Dorsey Twitter sketch

Clay Shirky, a media theorist and cultural anthropologist, has written about how Ello seems to be trying to find a happy medium between a social network focused mostly on conversation and one focused mostly on blog-style writing. And sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has said one of the most interesting things about Ello is the features that aren’t there, such as “likes” (which the founders have said they excluded deliberately).

As Jurgenson suggested in one of his posts, one of the good things about having a brand new network with new features and new requirements — especially one where you can’t just connect with Twitter and duplicate your existing social graph — is that you have to start from scratch. And maybe by doing so, you reconsider some of the decisions you made on other networks, whether it’s who to follow, or what you choose to share, or even how to behave.

I love these moments of new social media when conversation explodes, moved to imagine how social media can be different, questioning core assumptions instead of just fretting and complaining -all before this paint even dries. That complaining is important, and we’ve done some righteous complaining about Ello already, but I’m embracing this brief, and especially pronounced, moment of imagination.

Will Ello still exist or be useful to large numbers of people a year or two from now? Who knows. I certainly don’t; I thought Twitter would disappear in a matter of months, and look where it is now. But new things like Ello are interesting — if only because they force us to think about how the social web works, and provide a tantalizing glimpse of what might be possible if they worked differently.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Amenic181 and Flickr / Jack Dorsey

10 Responses to “I’m fascinated by Ello because it reminds me of when the social web was still new”

  1. Michael Green

    beingofficialmichaelgreen https://ello.co/officialmichaelgreen enter the portal of officialmichaelgreen use my ello as me:)
    type in dis
    email: [email protected]
    password: anothergreenello
    log out when done plz:)
    feel free to log in this ello and post as me, interact with my friends, do things officialmichaelgreen wouldn’t do, sculpt him, experiment, make new friends, lose friends, say interesting things, post a GIF hi, whatever u can think of. . . please be courteous and leave the password as it is so other people can try being officialmichaelgreen as well
    i will be monitoring the activities on my @officialmichaelgreenv2 page ‿

  2. William Mougayar

    I agree with your points. I think it has a chance to make it, once the hatching period is over. I see it more of a blend of Twitter & Medium, more than a FB killer. It’s a natively social publishing platform. It will succeed if it occupies a unique use case, not if it tries to steal an existing one.

  3. Reblogged this on Fathym It and commented:
    My Ello group is currently and inadvertently exclusive, in a lot of the ways and for many of the reasons that this article talks about. It is freeing to be unencumbered by certain types of obligatory social connections and reminds me of the happy, earlier days of Livejournal.

    So I could not decide which quote to pull out, because I found myself going, “Yeah, totally! YEAH, TOTALLY.” to like, all of them. This “moment of imagination”, as ushered in by this new take on social media, is exciting for all the anarchy is brings back. I remember when the Internet was a Wild West playground for outlaws, hackers, nerds, communicators and artists and it’s exciting to have a little piece of that restored to us, even if only temporarily.

  4. Thomas Hawk

    I’m totally digging ello. Best thing I’ve seen on the web in a long time. Personally speaking, I’ll be spending more time on ello I think than any of the other networks going forward.

      • Thomas Hawk

        For a ton of reasons. As a photographer I love how big images are. Images are so small on Facebook in the feed. Like business card sized, maybe so they don’t have to compete with the ads as much. On ello images are huge and they look so much better.

        I think in a lot of ways ello is simpler but more thoughtfully designed. The prominence of the noise bucket, for example encourages people to post high quality content of value to their followers. If someone is posting crap, or 30 links a day to their favorite twitter account, or some dumb meme, or whatever, you can just move them to noise. If it’s your brother in law he’ll never know you’ve essentially moved him out of your feed. While you can do this on facebook too it’s not as prominent or obvious. This leaves people thinking more about that latest status update or bad cell phone photo and so I think the quality of content there is better.

        The lack of a like button forces more substantive engagement. In a post I made about that, I referenced Om’s comment a few weeks back about the emptiness of the favorite. “Favorite is the “let’s meet up soon” of online social gestures — no emotional cost, not really real and somewhat pointless.” Commenting emphasis a greater quality of interaction amongst a smaller number of people. This feels nice and cozy.

        I love the early adopter / art community mix that is there now. This could change in the future, but it feels like a really intelligent mix of people and the best party going on in town right now.

        No advertising is also nice of course. I hate the ads on Facebook. Why should I have to look at an ad for a BMW over and over and over and over again if I will never, ever, ever buy one. I’m tried of being a targeted demographic. Sponsored posts on FB are even worse than ads, they push it right in your face. Facebook won’t let us pay for an ad-free version which sucks. At least on flickr I can pay an annual fee and avoid the ads.

        More than any of the above though it’s just a vibe, a feeling, the tone of the place that feels really good.

        Here are a few things I’ve written up about it:

        Thoughts on ello: http://goo.gl/t8oB4I
        More thoughts on ello: http://goo.gl/6z1nIa
        Comments rock the casbah: http://goo.gl/Smb0st
        Will ello succeed? http://goo.gl/PqztMV