Everybody’s talking about the new social network in town. It’s called Ello. And it’s billed as the anti-Facebook.
Ello promises to never show ads, never collect personal data and never require your “real name.” Some fear they’ll never make money, either, and wonder if it’s worthwhile to invest time cultivating a community in a doomed social network.
Gigaom founder Om Malik tweeted: “The obsessive coverage of Ello is less about Ello. Instead, it really is about our growing dissatisfaction with the state of social networks.”
I think he’s almost correct. He implies that over time we’ve been growing unhappy with all social networks. It seems to me that we grow unhappy with each of them on its own cycle—we love the new ones and hate the old ones.
Of course, he’s completely right about Ello, which offers very little to get excited about. Ello has an odd potential that I’ll tell you about below. But for now, it’s not a serious, functional or entirely usable social network yet. Search doesn’t work, so you can’t find people. You also can’t block people, so it’s a troll’s paradise. It doesn’t have mobile apps. You can’t “Like” or “favorite” anything. It’s clunky and awkward to use. Hardly anyone is on it.
So the fact that it’s being widely discussed and broadly adopted—that high-profile social media users are trying it out—means that there’s some other reason besides quality that people are talking about. And that reason is that it’s not only an alternative to Facebook, Twitter and Google+, but that it’s an alternative to their business models (if, that is, the lack of a business model can be considered an alternative business model).
So why have people grown tired of existing social networks?
Twitter also won the affections of users in the first few years. But recently, the termination of third-party clients, Facebook-like features, and runaway trolling and hate speech has caused many to sour on the service.
From Google+ to Pinterest to Foursquare, the pattern is repeated for each of the major social networks:
1. What is it?
2. Oooh! Shiny!
3. Hey, this is great!
4. Look what I can do!
5. I hope everybody gets on this social network!
6. OK, why did they change that? It was better before!
7. Ugh! Where did all these spammers, trolls and haters come from?
8. Oh, come on! Fix these glaring problems already!
9. Hey everybody, I just joined this new social network. Follow me there!
The sweet spot appears to be the first three years. But why?
Ello’s Halo: Why New Social Networks Get So Much Attention
The problem is that success and opportunism breed problems that users don’t like. Each social network starts out feeling like a tight-knit community of like-minded peers. By definition, the social networking early adopters tend to be far more active and enthusiastic about the technology and the features than the rest of the population.
If a social network takes off, the noobs, trolls and spammers pour in, overwhelming what used to feel like great conversations. The great unwashed masses come pouring in with obsessions and agendas that change the whole tone of the site.
And the companies invariably go public, or for other reasons decide to more aggressively monetize. So they increasingly harvest user data, filter feeds, show increasingly intrusive advertising and push to get even more people on the network.
In other words, amateurish social networks “go pro.” Or they grow up. Or they become lucrative businesses. All that ruins everything.
That’s why, I think, despite current appearances to the contrary, Ello might be the one social network to buck this trend.
Its “art project” design, slow-moving feature development and quirky interface might keep the masses at bay.
If they keep it simple, never go public, don’t grow Facebook envy and stick to their model of charging only small amounts for trivial extra features, they might retain that first-three-years feel that other social networks abandon.
Ello might feel like a new social network forever. But there’s one other problem: fragmentation.
Although it seems like people move from one social network to another as new ones come out and old ones fail to die, the truth is that everyone has a saturation point where the number of social networks is too high—many have already reached that point, making it increasingly unlikely that any new social network will get big—or people find one they like and stick to it forever, leading to racial fragmentation among social networks.
In short, besides all the problems inherent in Ello, a new social network is a tough sell, an unwelcome proposition.
And as each new social network fails to gain huge numbers of users, the lack of users itself becomes a reason for people not to try it.
This reinforces the primacy of Facebook. The reason? Despite near-universal dissatisfaction with Facebook, at least it has a huge number of users (and, therefore, is more likely to offer access to the people we know and care about).
So while social networks really are only good while new, their newness also makes them bad.
What we really need is something nobody talks about: interoperability between social networks. If a post on Ello could appear in the News Feed of someone else on Facebook—and if their comments on Facebook appeared also on the post at Ello, then we could simply choose the social network of our choice and still have access to our family and friends. But I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, really.