You have to admire a startup that actually professes to have a “Manifesto.” It is the stuff of radical salons, first (often last) issues of college underground newspapers, or student strikes. In the rampant race for cash, IPOs, or getting mentioned in some “30 Under 30” at a tech news site, there hasn’t been much that resembles principles or mission to the digital “revolution.”
But the hot topic of last week in social media circles, Ello, has a manifesto, a pointed one, and it is aimed at the ad and data-driven
marketing industry. “Your social network is owned by advertisers,” the fledgling social network argues. “Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is
tracked, recorded and converted into data,” it continues.
“Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.”
Their response is a tagline that seems born of Haight-Ashbury, mid-wifed by Steve jobs and tempered in contemporary nomenclature: “We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency.”
The Ello network offers itself up as generally free to users and completely free of advertising. It plans to support itself through selling to users special features. Ello does use your data to improve the service, and in fact uses the same “anonymized and aggregated” language most ad platforms use. But it promises never to sell the data in any form to third parties or to use it to target you for advertising. It also invokes the familiar cant of digital democracy fans: that these platforms should empower people, not turn them into objects.
The network was started by a small group of designers and programmers who profess frustration with the ad-cluttered experiences at the other major social nets that turn the user into a “product.” Sound familiar? That is the same language Apple’s Tim Cook used in recent weeks to assure people it would not be gathering data about their shopping habits when it implements the Apple Pay cardless mobile payment solution next month. “You’re not our product,” he stated, clearly aiming at Google, Facebook and a startup culture completely addicted to gathering data.
Cook is being disingenuous, of course. His own iAd product leverages tons of targeting data to fill our apps with ads mostly pushing the same mobile games Facebook and Google are pushing in their apps.
The idea that data-driven marketing has productized the consumer for the benefit of advertisers is not a new concept. It is the foundation of the media/advertising dynamic: packing and delivering audiences to ad buyers. Digital media simply has made that relationship more overt, which is perhaps surprising to the uninformed or young.
Nevertheless, Ello says its appeal is generating 3,000 to 4,000 requests an hour to be invited into the beta. Nothing sells quite like a principled rejection of selling.
One could argue perhaps cynically that countercultural ripples such as this are themselves an inevitable part of the larger advertising industrial complex. They signal when some aspect of the big bad machine has gone too far, generating resentment among consumers that requires a minor correction -- or something that resembles a correction. The small rebellion is acknowledged by the powers that be and ultimately co-opted into serving the larger interests of the establishment. The natural/organic foods “movement” is a good recent example of a seeming countercultural trend that itself could become a marketing tactic.
It is unclear at this point if Ello will outlive its week of fame and establish an outpost of resistance to the Facebook-Twitter-Pinterest triumvirate. Ello seems an inevitable response to a year when all of these networks fundamentally changed their experiences in order to adopt aggressive advertising models. Facebook and Twitter were butt-ugly to begin with. Now they are ugly, cluttered and openly touting how effectively they will use our data to stalk us with ads wherever we are online.
They had it coming. In fact we heard some of this same anti-ad, UX-first rhetoric just a few years ago -- mainly from the same social nets that Ello is criticizing.