Ello fever: the new Facebook?

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What is it?

A nebulously anti-consumerist version of Facebook, Ello describes itself as an “ad-free social network created by a small group of artists and designers”, emphasises its grassroots origin “as a private social network”, and assures its users that “ads are tacky, that they insult our intelligence and that we’re better without them”.

So far, so renegade. But how will Ello fund itself? “By choosing to buy a feature now and then for a very small amount of money you support our work and help us make Ello better and better”. Over the coming months, it will be interesting to monitor how faithful Ello will remain to the letter and spirit of its manifesto – and, if it does stick to its guns, what impact that fidelity will have on its growth.

Ello was launched last July, but its popularity has surged this week after LGBT activists spoke out against Facebook’s “real name” policy. There are manifold reasons users might be unable to use their legal name or uncomfortable doing so: some examples include drag artists with profiles listing their stage names, people whose names reflect their position outside the gender binary, and people who adopt pseudonyms to protect themselves from harassment. Facebook’s policy ignores these needs.

In the crossfire, many have flocked to Ello – but not without concern over the website’s security protection policy. Ello’s privacy controls and blocking capabilities are still works-in-progress and its broad philosophy is that users “should assume that anything you post on Ello other than private messages will be accessed by others”. This potentially compromises its ability to offer the LGBT community a safe space.

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Why should Trinity students care?

There’s one immediate reason: judging by Ello’s featured public profiles, its current user base possess a level of avant-garde nonchalance to which many of us (particularly in the Arts Block) desperately aspire:

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Naturally, the more people admitted, the more diluted the avant-garde nonchalance becomes – so if you’re tempted to flee to Ello to avoid the people who pollute all your other timelines with their lack of coolness, rest assured that they will follow you and ruin this one for you, too.

Ello might also interest you because of its willingness to support the LGBT community. It is worth noting that Facebook has, for instance, been responsive to the requests of non-binary users in the past to include a custom gender option. However, Facebook’s pattern seems to have been one of over-categorising users and then slightly expanding the franchise of these categories every time a particular group successfully makes its case. The minimalist openness of Ello might hold more appeal for people who want acceptance to be a given, as opposed to something they have to fight for.

Thirdly, though: Facebook’s data-mining is worrying, both because it is used to sell you things and because you might find it notionally unsettling that a company can use your everyday interactions to predict your politics and sex life. To the extent that Ello manages to avoid these privacy pitfalls, it might be better a cyber-home for you.

Will it take off?

It’s difficult to predict how it will do on a large scale when its membership is still exclusive (or so this as-yet-uninvited reporter would claim). The ad-free format has been tried before by Diaspora and App.net and flopped then – but an LGBT flight from Facebook could make a difference this time, particularly if allies join in. However, the compatibility of Ello’s low-revenue model with the sort of resources needed to support a Facebook-sized user base is still very much up in the air. We’ll see how it goes.

Illustration: Naoise Dolan