Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Ello - and good bye?

It's been roughly three months since I joined Ello, one of the new social networks. At the time, I was quite enthusiastic about it and couldn't wait to receive the invitation to join.

First, there's its minimalist, black and white look and simple features that really appealed to me. The promise of a social network without all the clutter and myriads of ever changing functions sounded very good to me. More importantly, there was the founders' Manifesto, defining Ello as an ethical and conscientious alternative to the established networks driven by profit and greed for your personal information. "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." Dubbed by the mainstream media as the "anti-Facebook", it grew exponentially in 2014, aided by Facebook's real name policy and storm in a teapot over dissenting drag queens.

The issue touched the Second Life community as well, as a number of SL avatars' profiles was deleted in yet another purge. FB-exiles were frantically looking for an alternative, and Ello's arrival seemed perfectly timed. However, if you log in these days, you are not very likely to see people posting anything there. The most recent of my SL friends' updates go back to November of 2014, and those are only very brief comments. RL profiles seem to be doing only slightly better. What went wrong for Ello, despite its visual appeal and the proclaimed ethical standards? I talked to several of my SL friends and fellow Ello-ites to pick their brains.

 A common complaint is that at the moment people tend to be using several platforms simultaneously and that it's tedious, time-consuming or repetitive (often all of the above) to maintain meaningful presence on all of them. In other words, Ello had to be really really good in order to squeeze out competition and replace any of the big networks, and that just hasn't happened. Another comment was more technical, namely that Ello lacks a lot of critical features that would make it more functional and, well, interesting. One can't argue with that - Ello really doesn't offer much in that sense, although some new features have been added in the meantime (here's the list of the current features).

Lack of mobile support was another thing: no Ello app has been developed to this day. I've had trouble logging in even via a browser in my mobile, which has been very disappointing. That's a huge drawback in itself, since so much of social networking relies on hand-held devices.

Finally, although I've praised Ello's minimalist appearance, the fact is that some people just don't like it. Customization options are practically non-existent: if you don't like the default appearance and feel stuck with it, you're not very likely to come back all that often. As one of my friends told me, "I did not get that warm and fuzzy feel for it that would make me return."

I can relate to some of these sentiments, but my problem with Ello was not really with the network itself or how it's set up (again, maybe I'm crazy, but I actually love it), but with the lack of interaction. Whenever I post there, I feel like I'm talking to myself. There is no sense of community, at all. None. Somebody might respond to a post after a few weeks, if at all.

The thing is, unlike Facebook, Ello demands time. If you have something meaningful to convey, you actually have to write. There are no 'like' buttons that have made us all incredibly mentally lazy on Facebook (nor the Tumblr hearts or the Twitter stars). If you do like somebody's post, Ello elicits explanation, it prompts you to be active and actually write as a simple click won't do. I find it fantastic that at the time of FB someone had the audacity to launch a social network that goes counter to the sort of networking that doesn't necessarily involve any thinking process at all. But can it work?

Here are just a few things one can do on Ello, though, so that it doesn't seem like it's a useless network with absolutely no features at all. (1) The account is extremely easy to set up, you can open it anonymously, there is no name policy and no danger of getting kicked out because you're, say, an SL avatar. (2) Obviously, you can post messages or images, with no word limit; the same goes for comments. (3) Search function has greatly improved and it's quite precise now. (4) Notifications are still a bit rough, but they added new functions and it's much easier to keep track of things - a pet peeve for a lot of early users, as notifications really didn't work well. (5) You get to choose whether your profile is public or accessible only to Ello users. (6) There is now a share option, which originally wasn't there.

Notifications are now readily available and clearly listed.
What I find missing are private messages. I think Ello's intent is to have a network that works transparently, with everything people post out there in the open, hence no PMs. And also, Ello strikes me as highly individualistic, hence no groups (although I suspect the reason for that could also be of technical nature).

I'm not sure if there's future for Ello. As far as the SL community is concerned, it looks pretty dead right now. I guess it's impossible for it to compete with FB or G+ without features such as groups, private messages or the ubiquitous likes and pluses. However, I believe there has to be a place on the market for such a network. I have to believe that for all the folks out there who resent commercialism behind social networks (Ello remains ad-free), who love to express their views in a way more meaningful than a simple click and who share the values listed in the Manifesto. So, fingers crossed. For what it matters, I won't say good bye to it just yet.

P.S. One can join Ello only through invitation. If you need one, post a comment or contact me inworld.