2014 Ello was in with the new and by 2015 it became out with the old. It’s New Years Eve and I want to look back on a thing that came and went this year, which leaves me feeling bummed. You can only be really disappointed if you start with high hopes, and lots of people for lots of reasons wanted Ello to work. It became quickly clear that the site didn’t have a strong vision. Neither its politics or its understanding of the social life it set out to mediate were inspired or clever enough to be compelling.
From my own vantage point, Ello more than other services was being used from the start by people who study social networks (hi). This is in contrast to, say, Snapchat or Tumblr, which researchers and technology writers have extreme difficulty even understanding let alone offering novel insights about. Ello, however, was quickly populated by professionals in tech, design, the art world, as well as tech researchers and pundits. And in this way Ello was a bit like Twitter in that the service appeared bigger than it was because it had the voices who are disproportionately louder.
Ello attracted people who like techno-political manifestos, and lost them when its politics revealed themselves to be so thin. Ello didn’t give off “less politically fucked” but instead “professional”, reminding everyone over and over how “beautiful” the site is. While its success at succeeding at “beauty” is quite arguable, my own skepticism is with Ello’s obsession with beauty in the first place. Meanwhile, Ello’s version of “fun” felt like that weird enforced fun, like getting drinks with your boss.
And you can’t sum the rise and flatlining of Ello without referencing Facebook. With nearly every Ello headline being equally about Facebook, Ello’s entire existence is understood through the lens of its orientation to the bigger social network. Ello’s year was Facebook’s year, and Facebook’s year was partly defined by “emotional manipulation” and “algorithmic cruelty”. Lots of people wanted a Facebook killer in 2014. Dominate social media are currently only a small subset of possibilities, it could all look and behave very differently than it currently is. Facebook has a very specific and radical social philosophy about how we should see ourselves, others, and the world. The idea that all of our sociality should be put into boxes, ranked with the number of likes, recorded permanently, all in an effort to create a massive document-double Second Facebook Life for ourselves was an outlandish and uninformed view of the complexities of social life. At best, it’s still just a single, limited view that feels restraining in its ubiquity.
All of this can be rethought! With the promise of new possibilities, people get excited. If there’s one thing that is especially combustible in the tech space, it’s newness – often to a fault. But people wanted a Facebook killer more than they wanted Ello.
Ello was never prepared to take seriously rethinking what social media can be. I don’t know if it was a lack of imagination, funding, expertise, or that the site was built and run by such a limited set of voices. I hope Ello didn’t suck the air out of the ‘new social media’ space. I hope energy is renewed in 2015. I fully believe that the improved social technologies of the future will better understand and respect the social as much as the technological. Anyone expert in the social will laugh at the phrasing “expert in the social”, but we need social media informed in part by those who start everything with an informed obsession with culture, identity, power, vulnerability, and the other things, say, sociologists do every day.
Happy New Years, hire a sociologist, and much <3 to this blog, its readers, and my fellow editors!