You must have been sitting in a deep hole in Antarctica if you haven’t heard about Ello yet. There has been a lot of hype within the last week.
So I thought it might be time for all those who just returned from a trip to the outback into civilization to learn about it… well, that might be far stretched. But at least let me share my thoughts on Ello and why I am on it. And why I think it might be a good idea for you to consider joining it, too.
What is Ello? Or what does it want to be?
If you haven’t had the time to read it in detail yet: Ello wants to be an alternative social network. Different than Facebook and Google+ it wants to be ad free and respect their users privacy more than the big networks which are mostly financed through advertising. I am personally not a big fan of heroic statements how someone wants to free the world from the slavery of business as it is. I am definitely not a left-wing activist, and never have been. And I am not a dreamer who thinks there could be a better world. Actually I do believe that human nature keeps us from creating a “better world” – besides that we all have different opinions on how “better” should be defined.
However, while being a very active user on social networks, I do feel a bit uncomfortable with the ways that companies treat me more as a generator of data instead of a person. While I am aware that Facebook and Google are using all information they can find about me to make their advertisers target me better, I don’t have much of a problem with that basic idea because if it would work perfectly well it would end up showing me only ads that I am actually really interested in. However, I feel uncomfortable with the idea that a service can use the personal data I am willing to share to experiment with users’ reactions and emotions. And as I recently switched (not fully yet) from an iPhone to an Android based phone, I was rather surprised that my weather app showed me the weather for a street address next door. I mean, Berlin is a big city and if the weather app would “know” that I am living in the Eastern part of it I would understand. But I really can’t see how the weather changes between my exact address and the district across the street. What for does a weather app need to know my (almost) exact home?
Okay, none of this is going to make me leave one of the social networks anytime soon. However, it makes me very aware and a bit sceptic at times. And I think there is a benefit from having an alternative trying to find a different way. Even if it won’t be the big success replacing all the others (unlikely to happen), it might at least cause a bit more awareness among users that you have a choice. And by that it might put some pressure on the big networks to re-consider their approach to privacy.
Where the early opponents are wrong
It is fascinating to watch how quick some people are making a judgement why Ello is a bad idea, how it isn’t working perfectly well yet and that it doesn’t make sense at all to have yet another social network. The basic idea seems to be: It can’t succeed because someone else is already there. And it isn’t perfect, taking money from venture capital is basically a sin, and so we shouldn’t even give it a chance.
The question is: Why? Why are some people starting to talk down something new, something with a different approach? Because it isn’t 100% of what they might think would be an idealistic solution? Because we don’t need an alternative approach as the existing ones are already good enough? Is that so? I have been very active in world wide web since it started around 1993. I have also been very active in social media for more than five years. I am really wondering how the technology environment would look today if we had thought that “Altavista is good enough, why should we try to use Google”? Or couldn’t we have connected with our friends through the Yahoo! Directory (which incidentally has just been announced to close) and read each others blogs?
How we communicate and how we connect probably has never changes as quickly and as dramatically as it has through the last two decades. Taking a few days to conclude that a new service will not succeed can not be considered a credible approach. Yes, it might not work out. Yes, other services have not succeeded. But invention does not take straight roads, it needs experiments and failures before success. And invention does not come with a big bang, it is about evolution, not revolution. Take a seat and watch what happens is a far superior approach to talk down anything new.
Of course, that doesn’t fit the modern media. We need answers, and we need them now. We want to know “will it work?”, and we need to know it from the start. Otherwise it might be a waste of time. Unlike Facebook and Google+, that is. Also, maybe some people don’t have an interest in changing the market place for information? Of course, if you have mainly gained popularity from Twitter or Facebook in the past, seeing a new network hype for a week is causing a risk for your own prominence. With a new network, new connections between users will be created, opening up the opportunity for someone else to take part of your audience. So, someone established in one network must always consider any new network more of a potential risk rather than an opportunity. So there is plenty of reason to doubt anything that Ello is, wants to be, states to be and users claim it could be.
Also, I have noted that most of the criticism is just based on wrong assumptions:
Venture Capital does not come only if you have advertising in mind
There has been an early financing of Ello through venture capital. It means someone invested money into the company with the long term idea to make a profit from it. That is how venture capital works. However, the basic assumption that “you have to have an exit plan to get venture capital” is basically wrong. In today’s economy it is quite common to invest in companies based solely on the “size of community”, even if a company has not yet made any plans how to capitalize on the user base.
Yes, all companies will have to make money eventually, be it just to run the development and systems they need to serve their user base. However, the basic idea that “advertising is the only way to make money” in the internet these days is plain wrong. There have been enough examples of companies whose main income is not coming from ads but its users. Thomas Hawk makes an excellent example with Netflix which is actually the opposite: Taking a service that was mostly financed by advertising in the past, and give it into the freedom to watch whatever you want whenever you want, ad-free. Users are willing to pay for this kind of service.
Another example is the new generation of gaming developers, Zynga being the most prominent example. While you might argue if Zynga is really successful, it has proven that a company can provide a base service for free and charge their user base on a voluntary base for premium services. In case of games, you could spend money on extra levels or gadgets within the game. Most users would only use the base game and not pay but the low percentage of users who are willing to pay extra fees is sufficient to generate hundreds of millions in revenue each year. There also is some advertising income on Zynga but it the user fees are about six times higher. Advertising does not pay that well after all.
Or consider this: Facebook is allowing everyone and every company to run their own Facebook page. And it allows publishing commercial posts or links to your products, services and articles for free. It can do so because it knows that if you want to reach a larger audience, sooner or later you will spend some money on advertising or promoting your posts. Imagine that a different social network would choose a different road: Skip promotion and advertising and charge a fee for commercial pages to be allowed on the network. Allow the users to choose which brands to follow and present those brands’ content to all the users who are interested in it. Personally, I don’t mind (and partly like) to read about a new product being published, why would I not follow the most interesting brands on Ello? And why wouldn’t Canon and Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic, Sony and Samsung, Apple and Porsche be willing to pay a few dollars (or hundreds or thousands) a month to be on such a network? Instead of “advertising”, you would give the users the choice of what to follow, force brands to be even more creative in how to reach out to their user base, and still make money from those companies. I have no doubts that this could work as well.
The cost of what you actually HAVE to have is overstated
There is another assumption that is at least overstated: The cost of running a complex system like Facebook and Google Plus. Ello does not want to be a giant network like those two. Just take the base service and then consider how much more extra effort the big two are putting into their systems that does not really serve those base services: Features to track your internet usage far beyond their own platforms by allowing outside website owners to use additional services like +1 or Like buttons on their page; extensive research to find out what your status updates tell about you as a person and your life; analyzing and preparing hundreds of data points about each user every day to make that information attractive for advertisers in finding the right target audience.
Comparisons have been made to the billions that those big players are spending on their computers, development, architecture and software. But what do they actually do that justifies spending this amount of money? They try to extend their reach step by step, they compete with each other, they spend on marketing and public relations. They want to gather as much data as possible because this is what they offer their customers as a product.
If you think about scaling down all those features to what actually is needed in a social network it is pretty simple: Track which people you are following, find what those accounts most recently posted and present that in the order of chronology. Yes, for a network with 100 million users, each posting a couple times a day, it still needs a giant number of records in a database as Twitter shows. And if you want to store some rich media like large photos as Ello does today, there is also some disk capacity needed. But the technology is pretty simple to handle. And given how simplicistic Ello looks today, it does not make sense to upload an album of 35 images of my recent trip to the zoo to Ello. The interface encourages the user to keep it simple and to a minimum as well.
And let’s not forget: Ello is not meant to be for everyone. It is meant for users who want something different than the main stream networks offer. I don’t see why and how Ello would replace either Facebook or Google Plus or Twitter, it will just be another choice. Considering that, the user base will most likely never reach the billions that Facebook now covers (of which by far not all are really active on a regular basis). Even optimistically speaking, it might reach an active base of 10 million users. And most of those will not be posting every day or multiple times per hour as some people do on Twitter. Imagine you can offer services that make only 10% of those (already self-selected) users to pay a small monthly fee of $5 and you have an annual revenue stream of $60 million. There is a lot of server space and computing capacity you can buy for that amount of money.
As a photographer, there are more good reasons to be on Ello than not to be
For me as a photographer, I see no reason not to be on Ello. The only backside I can see is that each social network needs a bit of time. Depending on your level of engagement, the amount of time spent can be extensive but that is basically in your own hand. I have been very active on Facebook for most of the past five or six years. I have slowly added Google+ to the list of networks I post to as well. I have made several attempts to find out how Twitter works but dropped it at least as an active channel. I post images on Instagram and EyeEm and a limited selection of images on Flickr every now and then. But I am flexible in what I do, where I do it and how often I do it. I will easily adapt my ways to add another channel to the list, without the need to spend additional time. Something else will be cut down a bit instead. Without a big plan, it will just happen automatically.
The most important reason for me as a photographer to be around: Ello has a wonderful way of showing photos, huge, without advertising or much clutter around it. I can present me, my work, my images without the idea that someone can use my imagery to commercialize on. While I don’t believe in hysteria among some photographers that Facebook might use my images to run advertising or sell it to their partners, I very much prefer to have viewers focus on my image alone if possible.
The simplicistic design of Ello at this stage also seems to have an appeal to visually oriented people. I assume that the kind of people who are going to be active on Ello will be far more within my peer and target groups than the average user on Facebook can ever be. There will be some who are writing well above average, and some who just excel through the imagery they show. But I don’t think it will ever be the place to share vacation pictures with cousins and friends you met in school twenty years ago.
There is also a huge potential benefit in being on a pretty new network: The possibility to connect with people you don’t know yet. I was among the early users on Google+ when it started their services years ago. But I somehow missed to stay tuned for too long. Still, I have hundreds of people following me and hundreds of people I follow on Google+ these days. And there is maybe an overlap of 20% between the Facebook people and the Google Plus users I communicate with, maybe even less. So even having been late to be active on Google+, I still get to read insights from people I would have never found on Facebook. And maybe I can reach out to people who would never follow me on Facebook either. It will be the same with Ello and to a certain part it already is. I don’t know who all those people are I am reading on Ello right now. I will continue to add people I am not already following on FB or G+ yet. At a later stage, I will find out who of those are worth following in the long run and how doesn’t make the cut because their way of thinking and writing isn’t compatible with mine. But for the time being, I can be out there and discover new people, new opinions, new mind sets. And some new people might discover me. To what end? I don’t know but I’m willing to find out.
What you really have to be aware of
Even if I made a point against the criticism, there is a few things you have to be aware of: For one, it Ello is at a starting point right now. There is no guarantee it will last. All your efforts might be wasted.
A second one: Ello is public. And it’s available to almost anyone right now (despite being invite only, you should easily find someone to invite you). So you will find users that you don’t want to see. And everyone can see what you are doing on Ello. There is no privacy setting or limitation of what can be shared at this time. If you don’t like that idea, you might want to wait until additional features are being added.
So: Find me on Ello, let’s connect, let’s see what happens. The worst thing I expect to happen is that Ello won’t make it in the long run. But who says that Facebook is going to stay forever? Things have always changed and will continue to change in our world that is progressively run on technology innovations.