New social networks are a dime a dozen, and most gain something resembling the opposite of traction, outright repelling potential users. Every now and then, though, hype builds around a site as it balloons in size. This week that site is Ello, a social network with a very clear mission statement. No ads. That’s it. The creators promise they will never put ads on the site, and by the same token they’ll never sell your data. In a post-Snowden universe, that mission holds a great deal of appeal. There has been a lot of hype surrounding Ello over the last couple of days, bolstered in large part by the fact that it’s still in beta and accessible only through invite. Is the hype just that, though, or does Ello stand a chance of replacing Facebook and Twitter in your life?
Short answer: No.
Longer answer: Not a chance.
Even longer answer: Ello is a failure as a social network right off the bat, and the reason is twofold. It’s kind of ugly and it’s too in love with its own anti-establishment cause.
As a social network its lone innovation is the way “friends” are sorted into groups. Unlike Google+ Circles, Ello has two categories. Friends and Noise. You put the people you really care about in your Friends section and all the rest in Noise. One section has a wide layout for posts, and the other arranges them much like a Tumblr page, like a bunch of… well… noise. It’s a neat idea, and one I would love to see on a service like Twitter, where feeds can quickly become too cluttered and overwhelming.
Unfortunately for Ello, that’s the only genuinely new idea they’ve brought to the table. Everything else is down to its design and the mission statement. The design leaves a lot to be desired, which is surprising considering it’s claimed to have been “created by a small group of artists and designers.” “Artists and designers” sounds pretentious, and the site looks it, with its vast white spaces, black boxes, and absolutely terrible font choices.
There are positives, of course. In addition to the “Friends” and “Noise” categories, the site features powerful text formatting tools, allows emoji in-line, and supports gifs right out of the gate. Getting into the site to start with can be slightly overwhelming due to its stark simplicity, but after a little while it starts to feel more normal and the simplicity becomes a strength.
So sure, there’s at least one innovation and an interface that shows the skeleton of something that might be much more interesting and useful as it develops. But why use it? It all comes back to the “no ads” mission. While people freak out unnecessarily over the Facebook Messenger app and other perceived invasions of privacy by Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple and others, Ello is banking on the idea that people will be willing to wean themselves from their current social networks and on to their new service. They claim they’ll make money by offering special features at a cost, which is a bold move and maybe not a bad one. But basing a social network on a mission statement is a flawed idea, and Ello suffers greatly for it.
For all that people complain about Facebook and Twitter, most of us still use them. Facebook in particular is core to a lot of our web experience, even if we’re not addicted to it in any way. Both services, plus Google’s network, are regularly used to sign in to third party services, and act as a connection for our daily interactions across the web. They are not merely social networks. They’re Internet hubs, directing the flow of our newly smartphone-accessorized lives. Post-Facebook and Twitter, the most successful social networks have been extensions rather than replacements. Tumblr, for example, offers a connective blogging experience. Instagram allows for a simple avenue for photo sharing. Snapchat is more app than social network, bringing compelling new ideas into the world of instant messaging. They are additive; evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
With so many users already plugged in to Facebook, and with their platform having become such an important part of users’ lives, it’s not an easy thing to disconnect. I know because I myself have tried, going so far as to delete my account several years ago only to find that I needed Facebook for some of the simplest interactions on the web. The creators of Ello expect that people will jump ship from Facebook and Twitter over privacy concerns are aversion to advertising, but that expectation is way off base given their product lacks the impressive feature set of its competitors. They miss the fact that a social network is more a tool than anything else, and the better and more feature rich the tool, the more likely it is people will gravitate to it.
A negligible assortment of people will be enticed by a social network that’s more anti-corporate idealism than honest to goodness tool for socializing on the Internet. The rest of us might try it on for size just to see what all the fuss is about, but that fuss is sure to evaporate when everyone keeps on using Twitter and Facebook and Ello becomes another silly footnote in the social media landscape. It’s a fitting end, of course, considering those are the platforms where we all heard about Ello to begin with.
Corey Atad is a staff writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto. You can follow him on Ello here (if you’ve been invited)..