Ello isn't the Facebook alternative you were promised

But that doesn't mean it's totally without merit

(Image credit: (Photo illustration courtesy images via Getty Images, Ello.com))

The remedy for Facebook and Twitter's relentless surveillance is pretty clear: Go elsewhere. But while many sites have tried to become viable contenders for the social media crown, the most alternative of the alternatives have faced one insurmountable challenge: Attracting enough people. If no one's there to hear you tweet, do you make a sound?

So it should be good news for anti-surveillance advocates that we've at least seen an alternative get a lot of attention. Over the past two weeks, the Vermont-based social networking site Ello has gained thousands of new users daily and has been profiled by The New York Times, TechCrunch, and National Public Radio, among other places.

Ello's rise is attributed to two factors. First is the slogan "You are not a product." As the Ello Manifesto puts it, on Facebook and Twitter:

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Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that's bought and sold. [Ello]

In contrast, Ello promises never to sell your data to marketers.

The second factor in Ello's rise is the reaction to Facebook's real-identity policy, especially among the GLBT* community. Sister Roma, a San Fransisco-based drag queen, led a protest against Facebook's insistence on "legal names," which would preclude her and others from using the site with their stage names. As Dan Tracer put it in Queerty, "Facebook broke a cardinal rule: Don't mess with drag queens. They will fight back relentlessly and will look fantastic doing so." While the drag community is at the forefront of this conflict, Facebook's insistence on legal names affects everyone: Try signing up for the site with a fake identity and see what happens.

As Ello gains attention for its anti-advertising, pro-pseudonym stance, it appears as if we're witnessing the rise of the Next Great Social Networking Site, echoing the meteoric rises of Twitter, Facebook, and before them MySpace and Friendster. Lauded for its simple, elegant design, Ello has already been branded a "Facebook Killer."

Ello's value, however, may not be as a "Facebook Killer" — that's perhaps too lofty a goal. Rather, it will be valuable as a gateway into the ecosystem of social media alternatives. It is situated as a middle ground between Facebook and Twitter and lesser-known sites such as GNU Social, Twister, and the previous holder of the "Facebook Killer" title, Diaspora.

How can using Ello lead to more use of alternative social media? The very people who hunger for a better social networking site have learned a few lessons from their experiences with Facebook and Twitter, and they are applying these lessons to Ello. As people engaged with the site and asked questions about how it worked, the fact that Ello's founders accepted venture capital began to circulate. Moreover, others have critiqued the site for being closed-source and centralized as opposed to open source and federated.

These three factors — being tied to venture capital, not opening up the code so anyone can inspect it, and keeping centralized control over the site — are anathema to many in the social media alternatives movement. In this sense, Ello is far from ideal.

Regarding venture capital, as Ind.ie Manifesto creator Aral Balkan has argued in one of the most important blog posts about Ello:

When you take venture capital, it is not a matter of if you're going to sell your users, you already have. It's called an exit plan. And no investor will give you venture capital without one.... Let me put it bluntly: if a company has taken venture capital, you [users] have already been sold. [Aral Balkan]

Ello's being closed source means that it is not transparent to end users. Miguel Freitas, founder of the Twitter alternative Twister, argues that users must be able to see the code running behind the screen: "After [the] Snowden revelations one should assume no proprietary code is secure for backdoors. People must be able to audit the source code and recompile it themselves." No matter how often a site owner promises your data is safe, without the site being open source, there's no way to adhere to Ronald Reagan's call to "trust, but verify."

And this closed aspect leads to the site being centralized — that is, living only on Ello-controlled servers. Carol Nichols, a software programmer who contributed to the social media alternative site rstat.us, notes that open source code allows users to decentralize a project — effectively, they can pick up the code and move it to wherever they like. "Anyone can take the code and modify it to do something else if they disagree with any decision... made." This even allows for starting a whole new project based on the old code.

Of course, not everyone is a programmer capable of auditing code or migrating a site to a new server. But the critique offered by advocates of open source, decentralized social media might influence Ello users as they critically consider that new site. Indeed, as people weighed the VC-funded, centralized Ello against the alternatives, many of them left Ello, or at least began to explore their options. However, they didn't return to Facebook. As the Daily Dot reports, they went to Diaspora. The decentralized, open-source site is seeing its active user numbers rise, and it is possible we could see similar movements towards Twister or GNU Social (especially the Quitter.se server). In other words, we could see a bigger movement towards decentralized, encrypted, open-source social media systems, a movement that is growing larger than the predominantly tech-savvy people who have led the way in the past decade.

So if Ello is not ideal, why is it valuable? Ello is intensifying and focusing the popular backlash against steadily privacy-invading sites like Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is already well known as ad-infested, and Twitter is increasingly getting this reputation. These ads are behavioral, meaning they track you to better sell you stuff. Couple this corporate surveillance with government surveillance and there's much to be concerned about.

But if Ello can make it easy to leave Facebook and show us there is a world outside of Twitter, more and more people might start branching out and migrating to new sites — sites that are anti-surveillance, decentralized, open, and far more under user control. This can lead to more experiments with alternative social media. We can finally leave the mainstream social media sites behind for good.

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Robert W. Gehl is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah. His research is on the culture of technology. His book, Reverse Engineering Social Media (2014, Temple U Press) is a critical exploration of the history of social media software and culture.