Why we need Ello

“I tried to quit Facebook. I really don’t like it. But when I stopped using it, I just lost touch with all my friends and didn’t get invited to anything, so I had to start using again.”

Have you ever heard a friend say something like that? I certainly have. Every now and then, somebody I know succeeds in quitting Facebook, but most who try wind up posting on their wall again within a month, often with an excuse like the one above.

Ello’s interface is attractive, but their business model is even more so.

It’s not really a surprise that people are always trying to leave Facebook. It’s a business we love to hate. Its practices are incredibly creepy, it gets perused by snoopy employers, and it leads to unproductive and annoying political arguments with distant acquaintances. But it’s also no surprise that we always come back. Facebook has long since gone beyond being a bit of online fun, and is now an essential network of social infrastructure. It is the dominant way that people organise parties, talk to their distant friends, and get in touch with people that have similar interests. We can no more swear off Facebook than swear off roads.

We are stuck with Facebook for many of the same reasons we are stuck with the inefficient QWERTY keyboard. Firstly: We are accustomed to Facebook. Just as we don’t want to have to learn to use a new keyboard layout (despite the obvious deficiencies of QWERTY), we don’t want to have to figure out a new interface for social networking. And, also like QWERTY, Facebook is conventional. If one person switches away from the QWERTY keyboard while everybody else sticks with it, then that person will have a lot of trouble using keyboards that are not their own. Similarly, even if we are willing to learn how to use a new social networking website, it’s useless to us if our friends aren’t on it. And so we stay with Facebook.

The problem, though, is that Facebook, unlike QWERTY, is proprietary. The QWERTY keyboard can be made by anybody. We are hopelessly dependent on it, but it’s not such a huge problem because a QWERTY keyboard can be had for a couple bucks and a trip to the local electronics store. Facebook, however, is, by definition, the only company that can provide facebook. And so it gets to exact a price from us in exchange for using it: As facebook users, our data is analysed, commodified, and sold to third parties, some of which are the government.

Ultimately, Facebook has both economic and political power to shape the way we engage with our friends, families, adn the world. Placing such an important function into the hands of an inherently monopolistic corporation is concerning. But what is the alternative? Can we nationalise Facebook? Can we somehow make one social network that is built by many different companies? It seems unlikely.

That is why I was cautiously excited to learn about Ello, the latest anti-Facebook to hit the headlines. And I was more excited a few days ago to see that they have signed a legal agreement making them a public benefit corporation, which will legally compel them and anybody who buys them out to forego any revenue from advertising or selling users’ data to third parties. That sounds great, of course, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. Will Ello be able to sustain itself financially without that source of revenue? They’re planning to accept voluntary payments in exchange for added features, but the jury is out on the feasibility of this. And even if they can do that, there’s still the fact that the graveyards of the internet are littered with failed social networking startups. Remember google plus?

Even if those concerns are unfounded, there are some further questions about whether we can trust Ello in the long term. They may never advertise and they may never sell our data, but if there is a mass exodus from Facebook to Ello, then Ello will have every bit as much of a stranglehold on our personal lives as Facebook ever did. Maybe they will be more benevolent than Facebook, but there are a lot of stories that start with assurances that “maybe they will be more benevolent”, but do not end very well.

So Ello has its work cut out for it, both on financial and ethical fronts. But I’m still rooting for them. Not only because I want to see Facebook’s power diminished (although that is definitely part of it), but also because if they succeed, they will set a very exciting precedent. There are three predominant ways of meeting any public need, as far as I am concerned. The first is a private business, whose problems are manifold and obvious. The second is public provision through the government, which is a nice idea, but often inefficient and unaccountable. The third has only recently become important on the internet: Direct relationships between producers and consumers based on good faith. That sounds vague and fuzzy, but it works for at least a few internet businesses. Major podcasts, such as Citizen Radio and Common Sense are all funded through entirely voluntary donations, depending on a close, mutually beneficial relationship between the podcasters and their audience. If a social network could work on that principle, as Ello proposes to do, then we would all benefit.

Up until now, we haven’t seen this business model scaled up in any major way. But if they succeed, ello might just fit the bill. A major social network founded on service to its users rather than profits for its shareholders would be very exciting. And so I’m going to root for ello. Maybe you’ll even see a page for this blog there someday soon.

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