Ello: Why Facebook Should Be Worried About a Rudimentary, Incomplete New Social Media Site

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Last week, you’d never heard of Ello — but suddenly there are thinkpieces about it everywhere, and someone sent you an invitation just before the invite program got frozen yesterday, and now you’re trying to make sense of the “minimalist” UI and wondering what exactly the fuss is all about. Or maybe you didn’t get an invite, and you’re also, yes, wondering what all the fuss is about. The site seemed to come out of nowhere, and the reason is twofold: first, while Ello’s been taking requests for invitations to its beta program since March, it was only this week that they started issuing those invitations in earnest. And second, it’s pitching itself as an ad-free alternative to the Zuckerbergian business model (its manifesto concludes with the declaration, “You are not a product”).

If you have tried Ello, you’ll know that in and of itself it’s nothing to write home about. There’s certainly potential here, but the product at the moment isn’t anywhere near ready for primetime — in fairness to Ello, they’re calling this a public beta, but really, it’s closer to alpha quality. Basic functions don’t work, the list of features to be implemented is about a gazillion times the size of the list of features that have been implemented, etc. If anything, the appeal at the moment can be summarized as: “It isn’t Facebook.”

Which, really, is the point. All the kerfuffle around Ello really shows is that, at this point, people are desperate to give Facebook the flick. Even two years ago, I suspect that most people you’d have asked would have said that the benefits of being on Facebook (or, perhaps more accurately, the detriments of not being on Facebook) outweighed the site’s ever more insidious disregard for privacy. Now, though? For years, Facebook has been pushing the invasion-of-privacy boundaries as far as it can get away with, as well as implementing changes that just annoy people (the insistence of News Feed on defaulting to the Top Stories algorithm, and most recently, the forced migration of mobile messaging services to the Messenger app).

Facebook’s been able to do all this stuff because there are essentially no alternatives — you’re either on Facebook or you’re not, but there’s no equivalent service to choose if you want something that’s like Facebook but doesn’t require surrendering your firstborn child to the House of Zuckerberg. Sure, you can just exclusively be on Twitter, or Tumblr, or Instagram, or any of the other bazillion social networks out there, but none of them replicate Facebook’s functionality. There have been attempts in the past to build an alternative, but they’ve all stiffed for various reasons: the much-heralded Diaspora arrived too late to challenge Facebook’s hierarchy, Orkut only really caught on in Brazil (and India, curiously), and Bebo is, well, Bebo. The only serious contender over the last couple of years has been Google Plus, which, y’know, hey, instead of surrendering your information to Facebook, you can surrender it to a different gigantic faceless corporation!

So there’s clearly a gap in the market here. Can Ello fill that gap? On current evidence, hell no. The risk in opening up such a rudimentary product to the public is that people will sign up for an account, log in, look around for a bit, say, “This is shit,” and never log in again. But perhaps it’s a case of striking while the iron’s hot — the simple fact that so many people have signed up so quickly for Ello suggests that they’re willing to give it a chance, and early adopters generally at least understand that what they’re looking at isn’t the finished product.

And let’s be honest, it’s a better product than 90 percent of the other useless shit that gets launched to great fanfare in the tech industry these days. If Clinkle can attract $25 million of VC funding despite no one knowing what their app actually did — when it finally launched this week, it turned out to be, um, kind of useless — then surely Ello can get hold of enough resources to whip their product into shape. They’ve clearly been overwhelmed by the amount of people wanting in (although, shit, if you give everyone who joins 20 invitations to send out, what do you expect?).

Perhaps the more important point, though, is that whether or not Ello works out, the huge response to its pitch gives Facebook something to think about. People have been predicting that sooner or later Facebook will become MySpace, going out of fashion and being replaced quickly by whatever the hot new product is. Whether or not Ello proves to be that product, sooner or later, someone will come along with something that provides a viable alternative. At that point, Facebook’s fate will be determined by how much goodwill its users harbor toward it — which, if Facebook continues the way it’s been going, will be very little indeed. The bigger they come, the harder they fall, and all that.