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My latest blog post for the Harvard Business Review argues that Ello — the “it” social network of the week — is a wake-up call for businesses to re-assess their social media strategy in light of growing public concerns about privacy and ad targeting.

But what about the users themselves? How are they responding to Ello?

Well, they may be signing up in droves, but so far I’m seeing a lot of complaints. These complaints boil down to a few key points:

ello screenshot

  1. Ello is ugly and its mother dresses it funny. Because Ello bills itself as a designer-led project, it is being held to a high design standard…and a lot of users seem disappointed in what they see. I personally enjoy the irony of a social network dragging us all back to the era of Courier, but I won’t aim to defend Ello’s design choices, beyond observing that there are few websites that enjoy universal or even widespread praise for their visual design.
  2. Ello doesn’t work right. There are lots of bugs in Ello right now, and lots of seemingly essential features that are on the roadmap rather than in the platform. Most notably, user search is just totally broken, and since there is no way to import or sync your friend list from another platform, it’s really tough to find the people you want to follow or connect to. This produces an interesting effect, however: people are using other platforms to announce their Ello usernames so that their friends can find them, which means that this “bug” turns out to be a pretty genius marketing strategy.
  3. Ello is boring. A lot of initial Ello posts boil down to “so what?” This reflects the fact that there isn’t really anything new about the Ello experience itself, other than the idea that what you do on Ello won’t be used against you or turned into ad sales. The difficulty people have in finding their friends exacerbates this problem, because it is even more boring if you can’t find anyone to read/follow.
  4. Ello’s manifesto is more style than substance. This, to me, is the most important critique of Ello, and it comes in a couple of forms. First, some observers have pointed out that Ello has obscured its use of VC funding, which will likely produce pressure to monetize the platform sooner rather than later. In the absence of a credible plan for “virtuous” monetization (i.e. earning revenue without selling data or ads), it’s hard to trust Ello’s promise to do right by its users…or at least, to do right by its users and survive in the long-run. Second, Ello’s manifesto only addresses some of the limitations of established network models: Dave Winer notes that it’s still a locked-down system, with no way to get your content in or out, and Steve Simitzis notes that a really radical network would take a federated approach in which people (rather than Ello) own and perhaps host their own content.

While I mostly agree with these criticisms, and I’m particularly concerned about the ways in which Ello fails to address many of the fundamental problems with today’s social networks, I am sorry to see the rush to criticize rather than cheer. From the moment when Facebook first appeared on the scene, and especially in the wake of its many privacy missteps, I have heard colleagues and friends sound the alarm over our growing Facebook dependence. I’ve lost count of how many posts I’ve read, speeches I’ve heard and conversations I’ve had about how a values-driven, privacy-friendly social network could work, and how it could provide the benefits of Facebook without the drawbacks.

But guess what? While I’ve been shooting the shit with my buddies, blue skying the ways we’d like to build a better Facebook, the folks over at Ello rolled up their sleeves and actually made something. It’s a very imperfect something, and I worry that it may pre-empt the possibilities for something that does the job better. I also know that the web-makers of the world will only get so many of these imperfect tries before people hear about a new privacy-friendly social network, and simply yawn instead of racing to sign up.

Yet those imperfect tries are not only inevitable, but essential, if we are going to move beyond Facebook as it is today, and towards an online world in which Facebook, or Ello, or something we haven’t found yet, does right by its users.  We have to be prepared to try, and to fail, if we are going to create the social networks we claim to want. If every critic of Ello backs that criticism with even one step towards something better — by supporting a kickstarter project, by hacking something together with friends, by offering Ello a first draft of the privacy agreement it should have — we may just get the social networks we deserve.

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