A glance on Twitter shows that everybody is talking about Ello, a new social network. "Be still my beating heart," I thought. Another social network you say? A new Google+ or maybe even a new Quora?
Sarcasm aside, I really do want to see a new player disrupt the current market, and Facebook is the network that Ello seemingly wants to disrupt. Ello is ad-free and doesn’t believe in tracking your activity to sell to advertisers. But that isn’t why Ello is popular at the moment. The network is invite-only, which seems to be the thing driving demand. People who have signed up are now incredibly busy inviting their friends to make the site worth using. Or incredibly busy pointing out they were cool enough to get an invite. You choose.
Ello came to prominence when a group of drag artists in San Francisco were targeted by online bullies and were forced to use their legal names. The resulting fallout included protests, meetings between Facebook and drag queens whose profiles were deleted, and now, a boycott. Ello seemed to be a logical alternative.
But sadly, Ello in its current form just doesn’t have the scope to be a Facebook killer. It’s a nice-looking site with plenty of potential, but Ello won’t be able to rely on being able to use pseudonyms and its lack of ads for too long. The network needs to make drastic improvements to prove it’s more than just a new Diaspora (remember them?). It will also need to make some money, because potential won’t pay the bills.
Ello has no privacy settings to speak of. All profiles are public. If you’re abandoning Facebook because of labyrinthine privacy settings or because you don’t want people to be able to find you by searching for your actual name, Ello is probably not where you want to hide. It seems anyone can find you. And if they do, you can’t block them, which would seem to be essential feature if you’re trying to create a safe social space. Even Twitter, not exactly known for helping users deal with harassment, allows blocking and allows you to report abuse. In their defence, Ello has published a list of features it’s working on, which includes private profiles and a block button, but surely these should have been there on launch?
I’m not sure how you launch a social network today without an app and yet Ello has done it. Ello says it’s working on iOS and Android apps, but at this point, apps shouldn’t be an afterthought — they should launch with or before a Web site.
And now to the thorny question of money. Facebook was ad-free for years. How will Twitter monetize was a favourite digital topic of its day. Sooner or later, every free network needs to bite the bullet and take advertising. How else are you going to make money? Ello has a vague outline of plan to offer premium features that are worth paying for, and presumably that money will be enough to sustain the site. I would argue there’s no way a freemium model can support a social network at scale. Ello is currently funded by VC and the investors will want a return. So how will Ello make money without selling your data? This issue, the raison d’etre of the entire network, is still not explained. All that being said, brands have already joined Ello. Although it should be remembered that plenty of brands joined Second Life too.
Plenty of sites lack ads. Many networks let you use pseudonyms instead of real names. So how is Ello different? I’m curious what Ello will do to make itself an established player and how it differentiate itself. Twitter and Facebook are so ingrained in our lives; any new social network needs a big hook, and great plan. I don’t see either of these yet.