Welcome to Ello. Here’s Your Tinfoil Hat

301410-aabc2b945a6ffda2bee3aa3b879af79f-medium_jpgSo, I joined Ello two weeks ago, during that wave when, out of nowhere, your Facebook feed became peppered with people either giving away or asking for invitations to the beta-phase social network. Fifteen days later, Ello kind of feels like… digital Detroit. Do you have a lot of artist friends who love to gripe about how limited they feel where they’re living, and how if they moved to Detroit, they’d have all the freedom and space they wanted to really flourish? The problem being, when any of them actually get to Detroit, their immediate perception is that there’s nothing there, and very few have the wherewithal to try to create something out of a perceived “nothing” or to discover the resources and connections they need to wrest what they’d wanted out of the experience? It’s the same thing with Ello. You have those certain friends who feel like Facebook is monitoring them, or Twitter isn’t “cool” anymore, or whatever, and they’re itching for an excuse to jump ship. Ello is that excuse at this particular moment. Good luck with that, guys.

I guess I’m okay with Ello. Right now it seems kind of like Tumblr, but with less stuff on it, and there’s less stuff on it because, in my own network, most people who have joined don’t know yet what to do with it. I don’t feel like I need a second Tumblr — I hardly use the one I have anymore. It’s not accurate to call Ello “the next Facebook,” because Ello is so primitive by comparison. Ello, like Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Foursquare/Swarm and the like, is a vertical network. In other words, it performs one function, or one related group of functions. Facebook is a horizontal network. That means it brings a variety of functions under the same roof — commenting, photo and video sharing, messaging, check-ins, event planning, calendar scheduling and so on. Ello simply can’t compete with all that. People who are gung ho for Ello are excited not for what it is — because it’s not much — but for what it can be, for what functions developers might built and for what culture might emerge around it. After all, every social network has its own culture, and people love when a particular network seems to speak their language.

That said, I don’t like the way Ello positions itself in its “About” section as a network that is uniquely private and protective of its users’ information. It’s not just disingenuous — when read by just about anyone who’s well-versed in digital culture, it’s flat-out patronizing. It’s great that keeping the platform free of advertising is part of Ello’s mission. If they’re going to inform users of any changes or new features, and to allow users to opt in or not, even better. But it doesn’t make Ello’s creators digital saints, and it doesn’t make Ello a more private place than anywhere else on the social web.

There’s a bit in Ello’s “Manifesto” that particularly rubs me the wrong way, explaining what other social platforms do that it won’t do: “Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.” I’ve heard something like that so many times. The refrain that “YOU are the product” in social media has been around for years. The problem is, it’s always been simplistic and bogus. It’s a premise that conflates consumer data, personal information and intellectual property, which are not the same thing. And just about anyone who’s well-versed in digital culture, except for hardcore privacy hawks, understands that “you” are not the product in social media — the product is consumer data.

I’d mentioned personal information, intellectual property and consumer data. When you talk with people who express concern about their privacy on social media, and hear them explain what types of information they don’t want the social network’s tentacles touching, it’s usually at least one of these three things. People get antsy about this stuff. So let’s take a second to break down what value this information has to a social network:

Personal information: This makes up your comments about your friends or your fiancée or your ex-boyfriend, the narrative of your life story, the experiences that have meant the most to you. This is almost completely useless to the social network, as a business. The only part that’s of any use is the data around who you know and what kinds of interactions you have with those people within the network. The social platform, as a business, will use that data to pitch ads (“sponsored” content) to you based on how likely its software thinks you might be to interact with an ad from a brand one of your connections has interacted with. Whatever kinds of specific precious moments you had with any of your friends, the social platform itself doesn’t give a shit, unless you spent those moments making or considering a purchase.

Intellectual property: This makes up your jokes, your original songs, your vacation videos, your autobiographical essays, the photos you took of your new paintings — all the creative or unique things you’ve made that you want to share with your network. All of this stuff is immensely valuable to the person who creates it, and it has no value whatsoever to the social network, as a business. Whenever Facebook changes its privacy policy, you see people getting up in arms about how Facebook is claiming ownership over users’ photos or other content — as if they’re going to sell your photos to Getty or something. The value of intellectual property is way too subjective for Facebook to bother with. Facebook doesn’t care about intellectual property. (That’s a common sentiment in Silicon Valley, incidentally, but it’s fodder for another post.) It doesn’t care about your intellectual property because it can’t monetize your intellectual property.

Consumer data: This is information about brands you’ve engaged with within the network, brand pages and posts you’ve “liked” and commented on, brand pages and posts other people in your network have interacted with, places you’ve been where (or close to where) goods and services are bought and sold, the comments you’ve made or content you’ve interacted with that pertain to particular products or industry verticals. This stuff is all extremely valuable to a social platform. It can take this data and sell it to brand advertisers who want to serve you ads based on your interest in what they’re selling and your potential willingness to explore what they’re selling. Everything you share on social media is converted algorithmically into consumer data that gets slotted into demographic and interest groups, which an ad exchange filters to determine what kind of ads you should be served. And it’s nothing personal. Consumer data is anonymized and automatically filtered by software that has no idea who is sitting behind this monitor or holding that tablet. All it knows is that the social behavior of the person behind that screen indicates s/he might be more receptive to this ad and less receptive to that ad. And ad exchanges don’t even care about individuals, per se. Consumer data is only valuable to the exchange en masse, mixed up and sorted out with millions of other people’s data. We drop this data everywhere we go on the web or in social media without thinking about it, and we don’t think about it because it’s usually not that important to us. It’s just the minutae of our day-to-day lives. But it’s everything to data companies and brand advertisers.

Maybe I’m being too idealistic, but I think if any of us were asked about what makes us us, we’d talk about our personal experiences, the relationships we’ve had, the things we’ve made, the things we’ve learned. We wouldn’t talk about the shit we bought or thought about buying. The creators of Ello have been around the block. They know what’s being bought and sold in social media, and what’s of no monetary value. So if a person understands digital and the business of digital and still trumpets a message about how, on most social platforms, “you are the product,” it feels at least a little bit disingenuous and manipulative. They know what part of “you” is the real product, and they’re playing to your emotions to suggest it’s something else. Basically, the creators of Ello are slinging some amount of BS in order be perceived as “the good guys,” and I’m convinced they’re aware of this. I’m also a little insulted they seem to think people like me will fall for such a simplistic line so easily. Do I look like I’m new? Do I look like I’m 10 years old?

Ello’s claim for the moral high ground doesn’t end there. Under the “Ello Doesn’t Have Ads” tab in its “About” section, its creators claim, “Collecting and selling your personal information, reading your posts, and mapping your social connections for profit is unethical.” Okay, I’ll believe they mean that. But again, the way they phrase it is manipulative. As I’ve explained, what “collecting and selling your personal information” means to typical social media users and what it means to data companies are very different things. And when a social network “read[s] your posts,” that means an algorithm scans it for key words. “Mapping your social connections,” for what it’s worth, is something any individual user within the network can do, provided your security settings allow them — and that’s way creepier than the algorithmic methods brand advertisers use to try to actually monetize your social connections. Ello might think this stuff is unethical. Personally, I’m okay with it. The methods they call unethical are in play virtually everywhere on the open web, too. I don’t feel any more violated online than I do in a brick-and-mortar store.

There’s more, though! Ello’s creators have more ways they want to differentiate their platform from every other social platform. Ello won’t sell your data to advertisers, but if you want, per the fine print behind the “Settings” tab (no link, sorry — you can only see this text on the page after logging in), you can “allow Ello to gather anonymous information about your visit.” That information includes, the text explains, “your location, language, referring web site, and time spent visiting Ello. This information is anonymous and aggregated. Before information about you is stored on the Google servers, your IP address is stripped and anonymized. This means that it is very difficult for anyone (including Ello and Google) to trace the data that Google stores back to any one user. We can see how people are using Ello in general, but not what you are doing in particular.” Again, that’s great. But again, it’s a little disingenuous. Ello says it won’t sell your data to advertisers, but if you opt in, you can allow it to collect the kind of data that is valuable to advertisers. It will anonymize your data, which it would have to do as a matter of course before turning it over to a third-party data company anyway. It will strip your IP address, but not all digital advertising targets consumers at the IP level in the first place. It will slot your individual data into a broader user group, which is what ad exchanges already do in order to serve ads quickly and at scale. But wait! Ello’s creators say of their process, “To the best of our knowledge, this also makes what you do on Ello useless to Google for advertising purposes.” Again, that’s great. But guess what? Facebook doesn’t share its user data with Google, either. It’s kind of a major sticking point between those two companies. Social data indicates a very different set of user/consumer behaviors than search data does. Google knows that, and that’s why at one time it tried so hard to buy Facebook’s data. But Facebook also knew that, which is why it refused to sell its data to Google. And that’s why Google created its own social network, Google+, to collect similar social data insights. I bet you don’t use Google+ for much, if at all. Good news, then: Your most valuable social data is probably safe from Google’s clutches.

Personally, what I want out of a social media platform is functionality. I want to be able to find the people I know, and to be able to connect with them quickly and meaningfully, and to conduct as many types of social interactions as possible within the same browser tab. Ello can’t give me that functionality right now, so I don’t have much use for it. And frankly, the fact that it’s ad-free isn’t much of an incentive for me. I don’t care whether Ello stores my data. I don’t care whether, as has been reported, Ello took VC funding, and I don’t care whether or not, as has been insinuated, accepting VC funding means it’s eventually going to have to share its user data. I don’t care because the kind of stuff I post and talk about on other social platforms is rarely about products and services. I don’t “like” brand pages. I don’t interact with sponsored posts. I just don’t supply very accurate or useful consumer data. I often hear people complaining about how Facebook has served them ads related to products they’ve just bought or discussed, and they suggest that’s somehow creepy or weird. If you don’t want to see quite so many ads in social media that hit uncomfortably close to home, there’s an easy fix: Stop talking about what you buy on social media. Frankly, it’s not interesting to almost everyone in your network. If you don’t want companies to pitch you shit you don’t need, stop buying other shit you don’t need. Or in general, stop buying shit. Your own browsing and buying behavior determines which ads you see online. Increasingly, the ads you see online aren’t just limited to your online behavior — the data sets that serve ads are now pulling in more offline data, like cash register data. The ads you see are only as canny as the consumer data you put in. As long as you’re buying shit, someone will try to sell you more shit. If you’d rather be marketed to in a different way, change your behavior. The ads themselves will be part of the landscape as long as users expect digital content to cost no money, because the money to create and support has to come from somewhere. If Ello wants to operate under a different business model than the rest of the internet, they’re welcome to try. But they’re swimming against the tide.

That said, you can find me on Ello as @LaRuminator. I’ll be checking in whenever Ello sends a notification to my email.

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About Brian

"About you," it says? This whole THING is about me.
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