It must come as a surprise, as I am writing openly on a blog, but I am not the most sociable person in this online world. In fact, my online interactions are mainly limited to an increasingly left aside Facebook account, some comments written here and there in blogs posts or news that particularly interest me and this recently created blog.
Regarding Facebook, I don’t log in as often as I used to. And truth is I find it less interesting in each visit due to the ad-filled pages and the endless requests from friends to play games. Not only am I trying to spend more time offline, but I also find the whole concept of sharing (showing off?), following, liking and commenting bits of others people’s lives very tiring at times. I recognised that is mostly due to a bad management of my account. As I realized recently, I don’t even know that well 90% of my friends and I honestly couldn’t care less about their lives, worries or interests.
However, it is an undeniable source of information regarding feedbacks on the most various subjects, through the specific groups and communities created. Moreover, it has enabled me to find lost friends and to keep in touch with friends and family members living abroad, without having to spend hours on the phone or Skype. In that context, it makes possible for people to share moments and to be part of each other’s lives in a way that would be very difficult otherwise. Besides, it has allowed me to know better people with whom I weren’t that close, making me grow fonder of them or, instead, killing any good impression I might have once had.
Nonetheless, I am more and more driven to more traditional means of communication, for instance gathering and talking. I intend to spend only meaningful time online, namely engaging in rewarding conversations with people who share the same interests as me.
So, when I first heard about the new social networking platform everybody was talking about, Ello, my first question was: what is the point of it? My second thought was: it won’t last. The history of social networks is full of unsuccessful chronicles: Friendster, MySpace, Diaspora or AppleSeed, just to mention a few. The secret for Facebook lasting so long is its most relevant feature: one can actually find almost everybody there and it feeds people’s curiosity and egocentric tendencies.
In Ello’s current Beta phase, you have to receive an invitation from a registered user in order to access the platform and each user can only send up to five invitations. This not only compels users to carefully select future friends but it avoids as well a sharp and fast expansion of the network which would threaten its normal management. However, it will be just a matter of time for it to lose its restricted nature…
Having received an invitation to join Ello, I succumbed to curiosity and created an account… just to see what the fuss was all about!I was not looking for another social network to be in but I was willing to replace Facebook with one platform that would allow me the same benefits without being so annoying.
Regarding the registration act itself, I must point out that identical user-names are not allowed. When I tried to use my real name, it was rejected, both in the integral and partial version of it, because someone else had taken it previously. As a result, I had no option but to pick up a pseudonym. I would have preferred to use my real name, regardless the fact that it might bring identity confusions.
The direct consequence of this is that, if someone wants to add a friend, he or she needs to know what his or her username is. The use of pseudonyms made up just for the registration act makes difficult to find friends on the platform. On the bright side, it certainly helps to keep undesirable wannabe friends away. But it is nevertheless ironic, considering all the buzz surrounding Facebook real names policy, who affected people preferring to adopt pseudonyms. While I don’t believe that Facebook’s policy is unrelated with the recently announced ad network Atlas (which I will address in a future post), I must say that I am not convinced either by Ello’s policy. Google Plus, for instance, had a similar policy and dropped it. However, the same policy regarding user-names is successfully applied in Twitter or Instagram…
Anyway, what is Ello really about? Well, as any other social network platform, it is intended to enable the connection and the sharing of content among users. However, it comes with the promise that user’s data won’t be sold for marketing purposes and paid advertising won’t be allowed.
Regarding the design itself I wasn’t expecting anything special, really. As long as it wasn’t bluish, I would be flexible. I enjoyed the monochrome concept; however I have found the design exaggeratedly minimalist and not very user-friendly. Somehow, knowing that it has been created by artists and designers, I was expecting more creativity.
One feature that struck me negatively is that all the information displayed in each profile is public within the website’s community. Of course, I am fully aware that Facebook itself is far from being the gatekeeper of privacy or a paradigm for any other value. It suffices to remember the sneaky privacy changes or the ones made to please the users, the experiment conducted on users data, and the removal of campaign post-mastectomy photographs or pictures of women breastfeeding considered obscene. More recently, there is the polemic ad network called Atlas. But, I mean, it is a business and profit is its aim. No surprise there. As it is commonly said: if you are not paying for it, you are the product. Proper information and transparency on how, what and why things are done are, in my opinion, the main issues. Nevertheless, I enjoy the apparent privacy regarding the ability to share information among a pre-selected group of friends.
On Ello, users can unilaterally add ‘friends’ (as for acquaintances whose lives they are interested in) and ‘noise’ (as for random popular users) who may be followed through a newsfeed-like menu. It is fairly easy for users to delete their Ello account if they want to opt out of the service. However, one must be aware that it is an irrevocable action and the content will be lost forever. So dramatic!
In an ‘wtf’ section, one can find some elements intended to introduce Ello to the new user. In this regard, its manifest is quite engaging as it reads as follows:
Your social network is owned by advertisers.
Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.
We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.
We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.
You are not a product.
Having navigated around the platform for a little while, I must admit that advertisements were nowhere to be seen. So far, so good… However, despite being a hopeless romantic, the new starry-eyed concept of online celebrating life failed to convince me.
To start with, it is unclear how the website will make money. Let’s not forget that other social network platforms, like Facebook or Tumblr, similarly started without advertising but, profit being intended, it was not a workable business model. According to Ello, profit will eventually come from special features that will be offered against a small amount of money (well, if they are paid for, it is not an offer anymore, just saying…) in order to customize users experience. This is not a new concept: it is called Freemium business model and is used by Evernote, for instance. That makes sense and it is utterly acceptable. After all, Ello has to capitalize somehow. Nevertheless, if the number of users continues to increase, I have serious doubts that those little charges will be sufficient to run the servers.
Although it might have escaped to the most distracted and laziest of us (not everybody reads the privacy policies) , Ello does collect users personal information, namely information about what pages are access, about the device used, information that is send to it directly or post on its web site, and the address of web sites that refer the user. It stores as well the name and e-mail address that users register with. In addition, Ello collects and stores an anonymized version of users IP address and of Google Analytics to gather and aggregate general information about users behaviour, although it offers the option to opt-out of Google Analytics and commits to respect “Do Not Track” browser settings. It states also that it may use or share anonymous data collected for any purpose.
Although Ello reiterates that it won’t sell information about users to any third party, including advertisers, data brokers, search engines, or anyone else, it may share some of the personal information with third parties under several circumstances. Users consent, legal compliance and the fulfilling of contracts requirements celebrated with third party services providers are among the exemptions foreseen.
It is quite strange that, while considering unethical the collecting and selling of personal information for advertising purposes, Ello broadly collects user data for non-advertising ends. Moreover, it establishes the sharing of user data as a rule, and not as an exception, considering the abstract nature of those foreseen.
Bearing in mind that advertising can be very positive as it provides useful information regarding products and services that users may be interested in, I am not sure that this is the biggest of their concerns. Indeed, the door is left open for privacy violations that come along with online tracking. Furthermore, anonymisation of the data does not ensure that, in subsequent matches, an individual won’t be identifiable. Additionally, Ello doesn’t give any guarantee regarding the deletion of information stored in backups when content posted or a personal account is deleted. As for the foreseen possibility of sharing information with future affiliated companies, it just means that the data collected and stored by Ello will be made available for businesses to which users have not delivered their data to.
Only time will tell if Ello is here to stay… But considering the above-mentioned devil in the details, one may conclude that privacy just seems to be the newest marketing slogan, regardless if it is ensured in fact or not.