We’ve all seen the “Ello” tide. I’ve lost count of number of people who’ve messaged me asking about Ello and whether everyone’s switching over – and could I give them an invite, please? Now, this isn’t to say I’m popular (I’m not) but this latest addition to a veritable ocean of already existing social networks fired up the social media enthusiast a bit.
It couldn’t have arrived at a better time – our Facebook newsfeeds are crowded with selfies and the pages of companies with huge marketing budgets, and by and large, it’s becoming quite irritating. Ello’s message – that of an “ad-free” network, where anyone can be anything, spread quickly. When we checked last, Ello was getting about 31,000 requests for invites every hour and someone’s even put up invites on Ebay.
If you’re worried that your friends will migrate to Ello, you don’t need to read any further. The Sri Lankan community is going to be here on Facebook and Twitter for a long time. If you want to know why, let’s roll up and sleeves and get our thinking caps on.
The First Labour of Social Media: Character
Every social network has character. Facebook is very much like the popular clique in school. If you’re in, you’re in, getting tagged in photos, statuses, being chatted at every other second. You’ll run into people who are fun to talk to, and even meet them in real life. Even better: you’ll run into people with decent cameras, and they’ll take your next profile picture.
If you’re not in this circle – well, you’re looking at a Newsfeed food of recycled 9gag and SLMemes images. Perhaps the occasional faux-cheery post from your old school.
Twitter is like that annoying kid who just will not shut up. It’s always active, always spewing out stuff, and you go there more to broadcast an opinion, perhaps to follow a train of thought, than to see what your friends have been up to.
Even LinkedIn has character. It’s like that rich, stuffy uncle at the family dinner. You can’t avoid him, but you can’t be your usual cheery self.
Ello, to its credit, has character. Unfortunately, what some reviewers call “fresh” and “minimalist” is actually stark and forbidding. It’s minimalist. It’s made of three colors: white, gray and black. The buttons are black and the gray text is sometimes hard to read. In contrast to the people-friendly, information-rich interfaces of Twitter and Facebook, Ello is positively emo.
For starters, you’re presented with this:
Yes, Ello takes its minimalism seriously. Consider the full picture:
Yes, that’s what passes for a newsfeed in this place. Hardly appealing: despite the minimalism, Ello falls flat on its face. It’s anything but welcoming: in fact, the Spartan interface makes Google Plus look like a veritable botanical garden. Ello is the kid who shuts itself in the room and yells for his/her mom to go away.
The Second Labour: Working Things
Of course, looks can and do change, and no social network started off looking as good as it does today. These things evolve over time. Functionality is often the breaking point.
Ello is a curious thing in this regard. It feels, looks and even behaves like a cross between Twitter and a single group on Facebook, and perhaps somebody’s Instagram profile as well. The Twitter parallels are obvious; you even add people to your network by following them, just as you would on Twitter.
With all of this, it feels strange. It might feel to some like a mishmash of their favourite networks: to me it feels like bits and pieces of other networks cobbled together with a layer of black paint on top. The “@<username>” system? Fake names okay? Right. We’ve seen these before, many times. Ello doesn’t really have a unique hook.
Right now, it looks and feels very much like Twitter ran into Tumblr and they brushed past Facebook at the pub.
Onto this mishmash, though, Ello tacks on something that’s a stroke of genius: a noise filter. You can follow people and place them in either a ‘noise’ category or a ‘friends’ category. Then you can switch at will, so you effectively have two timelines. One with all the people that are important to you, the other with everyone who’s not, but you can’t avoid. The lists are purely on your side: the others have no idea which list you’ve put them in.
This noise filter is brilliant. It single-handedly solves one of the biggest problems we face on our social media networks – separating the interactions we care about from the ones we don’t give a hoot about. Even the ‘noise’ layout is slightly different; shortened, somehow akin to Tumblr.
There’s also no notifications, at least not in the Facebook sense. There’s also no “like” button: rather, there’s a “love” button that sort of saves the posts that you love into a list you can access later. In that sense, it’s removed the narcissism from the picture. It’s more about the content user than the content producer.
This is important. It’s also important that Ello is fast and fluid, far more than Facebook. The platform seems to serve up text and images with equal ease: it even shows you how many people have seen your – or any person’s – status updates. This core is really well done. The lack of notifications mean that you can jump in, interact and pull out when you need to.
The Third Labour: Get on LinkedIn, son
Social networks don’t work out overnight: they build up. And thanks to the huge buzz Ello’s been getting, the adoption rate is phenomenal. The emo kid is popular.
You can, of course, get into the design of Ello and point out how this button shouldn’t be there and all that. It’s a web page, and a social network: it’ll probably change and change fast. That’s not what concerns me.
Ello’s problem is that it doesn’t seem to know what it is. It looks unfriendly; uses Twitter handles and a follow-unfollow system: lets you tap into friends, like on Facebook, yet looks like it’s designed for someone who heard the term “waste of screen space” but decided it was a Norwegian myth of some kind.
You get the picture.
Couple this with the space we play in: Sri Lanka. Are Sri Lankans going to “switch over?” No. We’ve got a good thing going on Facebook. More people are coming online, thanks to the rapid spread of mobile broadband and some useful no-charge plans on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Twitter hasn’t turned out to be anywhere near as popular, its use being largely restricted to a mostly Colombo-oriented audience. Foursquare was picked up by those with smartphones, but now that Facebook’s got check-ins, people seem to be gravitating back. We’ve got increasing numbers of professionals on LinkedIn. Instagram is phenomenally popular. By and large, Ello has really nothing these networks don’t have, and it seems doomed to fighting the same battle for popularity.
The emo Ello is also that kid at a school who is enrolled for everything, thanks to overeager parents – the band, football, dance class, the computer lab. Right now, it excels at nothing, because the big boys are very much in the game.
In short, there is no niche that Ello fills that isn’t already filled and saturated. Photos? Too late, Instagram. The Facebook experience? Well, there’s Facebook. Chat? Everything from Facebook to Whatsapp to Viber.
Is Ello going to take anyone away from these networks? Highly unlikely. You can count on your friends and fans being online more on Facebook than on anything else. Given the featureset, Ello’s far more likely that people will sign on and keep it as a secondary network – if one has time for that, of course: most people can juggle being active on two networks, rarely more.
In short – we’ve got stuff covered.
Ello in Sri Lanka is in a catch-22. To attract users, it must attract them – and their time – away from Facebook. That’s not going to happen anytime soon. And for users to flock to Ello, it has to have people that they know and care about. It’s one thing for a few thousand users in the US to jump on the bandwagon and be written about on BuzzFeed: it’s much harder to get a smaller, developing country to join.
Also, their biggest selling point may turn out to be the weakest link in the whole system. I refer here to its purported ad-free nature and its current exclusivity. Which, according to Common Sense 101, seems to indicate that they don’t really have a long-term business plan. Ideals are nice, but at the end of the day, something needs to pay for those servers. Everybody monetizes.