Ello and Academic Social Networks

ProfHacker 2014-10-02

If you’ve been on Twitter or Facebook lately, you might have seen the first apparent signs of a migration, with users announcing their new account names on the currently invitation-only social network Ello. This isn’t the first time there’s been a new network apparently on the horizon (remember the short-lived exodus to App.net, the still-on-life-support Google Plus, and the decentralized concept of Diaspora pods? Konrad, at least, certainly appreciated Diaspora.), but it’s caught the attention of those looking for an alternative to the advertising-heavy and commercial space of Facebook. Of course, right now it’s pretty empty.

Any new platform entering the crowded world of social networks today has to offer us enough reasons to move away from the networks where we’ve already established our connections and history. Ello is currently winning attention by making itself out to be the anti-Facebook. As Aral Balkan pointed out in his piece “Ello, goodbye,” this new social network is funded by venture capital–so while it might be anti-advertising right now, there has to be some strategy for profit in the future. Rose Eveleth sums it up with “Ello Says You’re Not a Product, But You Are”–the value of any social network long-term is in its user base. Creatrix Tiara has further drawn attention to the risks of this space from a privacy standpoint, reminding us that there’s a lot more to safety and privacy on a social network than the absence of real names and an anti-advertising policy.

From a design perspective, Ello has taken minimalism to such an extreme that it can be hard to find any of the important information (as pictured above). Several of the design elements are very unfortunate for taking the network seriously (help and other information is hidden under a section titled “WTF,” the type of joke that suggests this won’t be a family’s social network anytime soon). Jeffry van der Goot called the site “a design disaster,” thanks to both a lack of professionalism and design cohesion. Currently, it’s hard to imagine this is the interface of a social network that will be particularly friendly to incorporation in courses or academic spaces.

Ello is being billed as the new alternative to Facebook, but if anything, it reminds me more of Tumblr. Currently, much of the action is in the idea of “Noise”–the equivalent of following someone on Tumblr or Twitter, without necessarily having any reciprocal relationship with them–and the variety of content there is just that. With no real-name identity association (which definitely has its benefits, ala Tumblr), it does have some potential as a space for emergent conversations and random discovery. I’ve used Tumblr for research, and I could potentially see Ello working similarly if it catches on.

I for one won’t be investing my time into Ello without a lot more forthright information about their business model and some serious changes to their apparent design philosophy. Have you taken an invite to Ello? Share your impressions of this new social network in the comments!