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

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