So everyone wants to get on Ello. It’s this new social networking site that is made to look real slick: grey on grey, monospace font, circular user profile images and big cover images for your profile page. So far, it’s clunky, awkward–a beta release, if you can call it that, but one that seems to have been pushed pretty hastily out the door. I’m all for people trying to make new things, especially in the time of Facebook supremacy. (Although I am happy to remind you that Facebook still isn’t the be-all, end-all, and we need to talk about Twitter and the ascendancy of Tumblr at some point, too.)
And in fact, Ello originally cropped up on my Facebook feed as the “anti-Facebook.” Especially in light of the “real name” debacle on Facebook last week (I’d like to also add the note here that Facebook has had a truly fucked up policy about “real names” for a long time; see this post from 2010), a lot of folks in my network (full of queer trans people of color [QTPOC]) were keen to find an alternative. People started posting about Ello as the destination for some kind of mass queer exodus from Facebook. As go the queers, so go the masses. Or something.
After about half an hour of using Ello I started getting a little concerned. I’m on board with everything Jeffry van der Goot points out about Ello’s design trainwreck. As I’ve been telling friends: don’t beat yourself up over being confused by Ello. Its design is incomprehensible. I almost stopped using it after the first half hour because I couldn’t navigate it.
Other glaring problems have been cropping up. The main one, especially given the QTPOC excitement over the site, is about safety. Tiara Shafiq sums it up nicely in her tumblr post that I’ve been seeing passed around, but the main thing is, everyone seemed to initially overlook the fact that Ello had no built-in safety features. You can’t block users. Your use of the platform is instantly consent to be followed by any other Ello user. As someone who’s been stalked, that’s really scary.
And it’s not just about safety right now. Deanna Zandt raises some important points about how the needs of the first wave of early adopters shapes the way a social network evolves over time. There are some hopeful gestures at listening to users’ needs (like the email that was sent yesterday regarding improvements to safety mechanisms–although I’m going to believe it when I see it, and given Twitter’s ongoing difficulty with the robustness of the block feature, I’ll hold my judgement until I see it in action), but the way that Ello is set up–and the way it’s funded, as Andy Biao points out–doesn’t do much to disrupt anything in terms of existing dynamics online.
The thing that really disturbs me about all these critiques is not the critiques themselves. The thing that disturbs me the most is the fact that if Ello is the anti-Facebook, we’ve already lost. Hear me out for a second.
I have a strong suspicion that Ello rushed this beta release on getting wind of the Facebook “fake name” purge, in large part because the product feels so unfinished. It was an excellent opening gambit, considering the fact that any straw could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to user patience with Facebook. By hawking their product with a “manifesto” (could you not, by the way?), they are tapping into a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the status quo. But they’re asking us to choose between one set of problematic features and another.
With Ello positioned as the anti-Facebook, a door closes. Our imaginations are bound to the platform choices we’ve been presented with. We are locked into a politics of scarcity that is very unfamiliar to me on the internet. As I was remarking to a friend yesterday, the thing I’ve always loved about the internet was its anarchistic abundance, its sense of possibility. The thing that disturbs me the most deeply about positioning Ello versus Facebook is the way that abundance is foreclosed on.
This might be a tall order. But I think it’s one worth considering. Alternative funding models, alternative ways of managing stacks and databases, alternative organizational management structures need to be talked about. Is it crotchety and wrong to say I want some of the spirit of the old weird internet in my radical social network?
In the meantime, my pal Max Berger is working on making a list of demands to make Ello the thing it seems to want to be. Worth checking out.
EDIT: I just wanted to add a link to Quinn Norton’s piece on Ello, because of this:
The Ello folk have told me they’re not competing with Facebook, but Facebook is competing with them. Facebook is literally competing with everything else you might want to do online, and with all the AFK time they can push into as well. Big social networks seek an impossible level of total user engagement. The more they have you, and the more they have on you, the more they can feed their demons.
So I want to say that maybe it’s Facebook that forecloses on abundance. But we kind of already knew that.