Ello is a bright and clean new social network that promises, in its manifesto, to stay free of ads, never sell your data, and not make anyone use real names. People are paying attention to Ello because other people are paying attention to Ello. It is invitation only. New members were joining at the rate of 4,000 sign-ups per hour yesterday; the site is doubling in size every 3 or 4 days. Ello just notified me that I can't send out invites right now because "Ello has gone viral."
That description alone places Ello squarely in our current technological moment—as flawlessly Fall, 2014 as Infosec Taylor Swift—even if the surge in popularity is a primal shrug that some of us want out. Facebook is a utility and no one wants to hang out in a ConEd plant. Facebook alienated drag queens and the LGBT community with its real name policy, making Ello look like a crisp, new fuck you.
We treat "it" startups like come-hither ingenues and right now that "it" is Ello. This week or next, you will ask or be asked, in mildly panicked tones, whether you need to know what Ello is.
But for those searching for what's next, Ello is not it. There have been a few versions of this virtuous social network before—from Diaspora (forgotten), App.net (oof), and even Path (oy). Of those three, people badly wanted to believe in Diaspora. "Their project was intended less as an imitation of Facebook than as an escape route from it—a path to freedom for those who had come to fear the dark side of the social network," New York magazine wrote almost four years ago to the day.
In the case of Ello creator Paul Budnitz, a Colorado-based artist, photographer, filmmaker, toy maker, and bike enthusiast, he went with "evil" instead of "dark side," telling Betabeat:
They will do whatever it takes to show you more ads — and to show your friends more ads — even reading your posts and your friends' posts and using your connections to make money. We think this is evil.
Ello is still in beta and people really want to believe in Budnitz and his six cofounders, too.
Only nowadays, the hype cycle happens at hyperloop speed. So barely after it opened shop, we have Ello users bemoaning the lack of diversity and posting warnings on Ello that "Ello will one day suck." How did we get to nostalgia already?
New companies seem more and more disposable, but we keep clicking around demanding authenticity and purity. Journalist Quinn Norton concluded that the only way Ello will survive is if Budnitz agrees to become Jonas Salk instead of Mark Zuckerberg.
The critics may be premature, but they're onto something. Ello has already taken venture capital financing, albeit from Vermont. And no matter how many features are added and tweaked, Ello was built on conventional wisdom: it has a manifesto (if left out on the counter, those things will attract thinkpieces), it wants to "change the world," and it throws around words like "forever."
Then there's the invitation-only aspect. While useful for struggling servers, it's a basic bitch's growth-hacking technique, breeding homogeneity, stoking peer pressure, and swerving into the hype cycle lane. Viral is not a state to aspire to if you "believe there is a better way" and "believe in audacity." See, I'm not immune to the manifesto effect either. Look at what I just wrote.
Here's the life-affirming part of tech co-dependency. Ello is pretty fun right now. Fun and freeing. It's stupefying how quickly we've normalized behaviors like registering with a Facebook or Twitter identity or pulling from your contacts. If you're forced to ask questions like, "Where are my friends?" then, woot, you get to pick new friends. And don't you want to pick new friends? Aren't you tired of listening to the old ones? There's even a button for that: you can label every person "FRIEND" or "NOISE."
Ello was different enough to remind me how very different things could be. I posted sentimental and uncool updates that otherwise would have gone unspoken, I wasn't connected to anyone on my Twitter lists. It felt more like Tumblr than Facebook: intimate, when very few eyes were on you and befriending random strangers was encouraged.
This morning, early adopters started tweeting out links to their Ello profiles, so canoes are filling fast with familiar faces to ride down yet another stream. Around the same time Budnitz promised (again) to remain ad-free and porn-friendly, we learned that a brand had already found its way in.
But cheer up Ello members because this is not your startup. You don't have to worry if this will last. The search for a space completely free of commercialization has long been futile. Maybe the new next is jumping from platform to app, fragmenting your identity in a way Facebook and Google would never allow. If Ello fails and your contributions are lost, right now impermanence feels like mischief. It feels like a gift with purchase.
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[Photo via Getty]