Is It Time to Say Hello To Ello? If Not Now, Later

The Social Media Insider was feeling a bit quippy the other day when she moderated a panel at OMMA Premium Display. The topic was on whether paid social had actually morphed into online display, so she took that opportunity to try and kill off Ello, only a week after anyone -- except for a bunch of people in Burlington, VT -- had ever heard of it. 

Remember that old trope about things moving so fast in Internet time? Well, the quip was in that vein. “It was a great three or four days,” she explained to the audience of Ello’s time as the hot new social network during those halcyon days of the last full week of September. Which is an overstatement. She gets it.

But here’s what prompted it. (Let’s take a moment for the Social Media Insider to switch over to first person. There.) After, yes, clamoring for an invite last week -- haven’t been back on Ello since -- the next thing I started seeing was a lot of whining about the interface, which, if you haven’t seen it, roughly resembles the output of a Smith-Corona using Eaton Corrasable Onion Skin Typewriter Paper. Only with visuals. The Fast Company Design blog called it “an atrocious example of minimalist design” in its diatribe, “Ello's 5 Biggest Design Crimes.” Some guy on Medium called it “a design disaster,”  saying it failed in terms of “affordance” -- whatever the hell that is.

And, so, going back to my quip at that conference, the time seemed to be ripe to kill Ello. The honeymoon seemed over, practically before it began.

But what the design-o-gentsia doesn’t get about Ello, or Ello wannabes, is that at some point, another social network is going to take off in a sincere fashion, rather than merely being the flash in the pan that Ello currently is. Complain about the design all you want, but the timing for another big social network to take off -- an anti-Facebook -- is exquisite. While most of that has to do with specific things that Facebook is doing, it also has to do with the increasing creep-out factor that many consumers feel about social networks in general.

I’m not predicting a mass exodus from Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn any time soon. But if you look at virtually all of the recently created social networks, they are a play on the premise that people might not want advertising, access to their data, or to post using their real-world identity: Snapchat. Whisper. YikYak.

As a MediaPost colleague said this week (see comment on this post), one reason that Ello suddenly sprang into the public consciousness was because of a perceived “anti-gay crackdown” on Facebook. Specifically, this had to do with the social net’s policy – since loosened – that people had to use their real names. (Now, people with stage names – such as drag queens – are permitted to use them on the platform.)

Thank you, Facebook! But there’s still an underlying problem. That such skirmishes happen at all causes people to yearn for a different place to be social, a place that users control entirely. You can laugh cynically at anti-ad diatribes like what you’ll find on Ello. (A point of view shared by Facebook-owned WhatsApp.) Or, you can look at trying to run a social network without ads as a noble one. I’ve long thought that if you wanted a nice, stable social networking business, with steady -- but never spectacular -- revenue, you’d set it up as a subscription service and forget this whole data-mining thing. Like WhatsApp!

Of course, that’s emphatically not what a social network that has to report to shareholders is going to do. Last week’s case in point: Facebook’s resurrection of Atlas , the former Microsoft and aQuantive ad platform that has the potential to put Facebook on similar footing to Google in terms of ad networks that run across the Web. By being able to leverage Facebook data to target almost wherever in the digital world people roam – and build more robust attribution models – Facebook is pushing the envelope on how it uses consumer data.

Most consumers won’t know, or won’t care. But at some point, there will be enough people who do care to start populating other networks in enough numbers that other people will come on board, too. And then, it will be time to say hello to Ello … or something like it. Even if it’s ugly.

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