Social networks, I've known a few, and Ello — in an ever-expanding public beta — is the latest entrant into a market both dominated and crowded, and littered with corpses. We may see Facebook and Twitter in much of the world, Sina Weibo, Tecent QQ, and Qzone in China, and Vkonkate in Russia as the biggest players. But there are so many others that serve niches small and large: Path and Instagram; Tinder, Grindr, and OkCupid; Google Plus, though we mostly pretend to ignore it because of how they opted people in; LinkedIn; and many language or country/region specific ones.
How can Ello possibly cut through the noise and convince people to join, especially when the service has pledged to remain free? Primarily in opposition to nearly all other networks, in which the product is the consumer, including interactions with other people. Twitter, Facebook, and most of the rest want to serve ads and sell behavior. Ello says it won't, but let's get back to that at the end of this article.
While it's been in private beta for months, Ello exploded in the last couple of days, possibly as a result of Facebook enforcing its policy of requiring real names, which caused profound alarm in multiple communities, including the LGBTQ one. Internet luminaries joined in. The power-law distribution is already in immediate effect. With an unknown number of current users, Wil Wheaton has 1269 followers and Xeni 522.
I joined yesterday and am seeing a flood of people enter — and I'm helping fuel the fire by distributing invitations to people as fast as I get them. (I wasn't given any special quantity, nor do I know anyone involved in making Ello.) The service isn't really ready for this level of attention, but when the tidal meme hits, you have to ride it or be destroyed — there's rarely a second chance.
Ello is a cross between tumbling and microblogging. One's profile page is blog like, and you can post a mix of images and formatted text, including using standard Markdown. Audio is coming via SoundCloud embedding and video through embedding from four services. An entry can be tiny like a tweet or a full-blown post, which can be read on its own. Threading is handled as replies that are displayed as comments on an entry; comments may be disabled on all your posts, or individually deleted. You don't have to use a "real" name, and your account may be deleted and its name reassigned if you don't upload a profile pic in 60 days or post anything at all for a year.
My Twitter buddy Alanna posted this very blog-like entry, which convinced me to join Ello, as it demonstrated an example of the long-form potential. While this is bread and butter for Tumblr, Tumblr isn't a micro-blog: it's more of a rolling community, in which the currency comes from reblogging, thoughts, animated GIFs, and images. Ello seems more designed for conversation, in which tiny text mixes with big thoughts presented in more compliated ways. Since it's still a beta, it's not clear how elaborate the layout will become. Simple is good, even to the signal of choosing a monospace font to appear less artful. (I prefer proportionatelly spaced fonts designed best for screen legibility, but I understand the choice here.)
You follow people by marking them as either Friend or Noise. The posts of friends appear in your timeline; those of noise as a kind of abbreviated miasma in a separate view. The people categorized as noise don't know you labeled them that way. (Guess how many people will put me in noise.)
In this current beta incarnation, private messaging isn't fully implemented and private accounts don't exist. You can't block people or report abuse on individual items, although they may be taking early action to squash crud. Favoriting, which they will call Love, isn't in place yet, nor reblogging, the underpinning of growth of nearly every other social network. This is all to come, documented in the feature list. (I disagree heavily with their plan to use the convention @@ at the start of a message before a user name for a private message, because of the high likelihood mistyping will reveal private messages to everyone.)
The mobile version is not quite usable yet, either, and apps are yet to come — and no early word on whether they'll expose an API for developers or control that experience. Twitter grew rapidly by allowing Web and native apps to build on its API, and then largely crushed that direction when it reached a scale at which it didn't want third-party alternatives to its ad-driven model to grow further.
A social network is only as valuable as the intersection of its participation by the critical members of your personal and professional circles, as well as often having outer rings of a broader milieu in which it's valuable to dip in and participate. A failure to reach scale rapidly, sustain growth while keeping services working, and bring in crowds of people dooms a network, no matter how cleverly it's organized.
This is a beta, and things will be rough and break. Many thousands of people an hour were apparently signing up in the last few days to use an in-progress network. If it breaks often, loses data, is highly unresponsive, or is unavailable for periods of time, the excitement may die down. It might be an Orkut, which became a juggernaut in Brazil — and which Google is shutting down September 30th as Google wanted its users to spend time in more revenue-productive sites it developed.
Ello is reminiscent of App.net, the previous underdog contender that arose out of a failed social-picture service and was funded by venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $800,000. App.net charged for memberships initially and promised it would not go down the path of competing networks: it wouldn't sell ads or analytics, although developers building on top of it could do so (with certain limits).
App.net (abbrevated ADN on Twitter to avoid Twitter's shortening service rewrite) offered app infrastructure services for developers, primarily mobile, that popularized itself as a microblogging service akin to Twitter. The notion was that developers would offer their users App.net subscriptions to tie into the social graph (interconnections with others), handle messages and announcements (like push notifications and RSS), and manage storage.
But it never caught fire because it didn't think of its microblogging service as its main offering and decided to charge for unlimited accounts from the start, only adding more limited free accounts later. While the infrastructure part was compelling, without a huge network, there wasn't enough to offer developers over the long term; they came in the hundreds at the launch, but fell away when the network didn't grow enough. It's now in a kind of maintenance mode.
Ello is clearly betting that it can pull in growth at a low-enough cost by being an alternative to, but not precisely competitor of, giant social networks. If it can achieve a scale in the millions, it can then foster interactions and services that aren't possible when advertising is the engine of revenue. This might include incorporating developer services a la App.net.
And it probably needs to be more frank. Its disarming mission statements are welcome and delightful, but not clear enough about how it's being funded. Andy Baio, the head of Upcoming.org, found that the group's About page is at least a bit disingenuous: it has venture-capital backing, which doesn't poison it, but it makes it hard to align the values expressed for the network's future with what VCs demand in most cases in terms of following the money for growth. (Baio posted this on Ello, naturally.)
At the moment, Ello is a free, closed-source social network, with no export tools or an API, fueled by venture capital and a loose plan for paid premium features. I think it's fair to be skeptical.
It also needs to consider and address how it will handle interactions with governments, as Quinn Norton notes.
No one should say goodbye to Ello at this stage. It has an intent that seems admirable, the more so every time a big network tries to slip in a policy change or use weasel words to explain that what one of their executives said about a major shift in the future isn't what is going to happen at all. (Or is it?)
Rather, we should encourage Ello to disclose, document, and own up to every policy and direction they want to promote as a reason to participate. We build the value of a social network, one at a time. Our participation is a vote for its future and often money in the founders' and investors' pockets, and we should act that way this time around.