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Can Ello get by on a manifesto and a smiley?

The froth of hype surrounding the new social network Ello is proof that something's deeply wrong with the way we report on Startupland.
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Written by Stilgherrian , Correspondent on

The willing suspension of disbelief. It's an essential ingredient for any kind of storytelling, says Wikipedia. It allows us to overlook the obvious fact that Lois Lane would surely notice that Clark Kent and Superman look exactly the same. And it allows us to overlook new social network Ello's obvious shortcomings — it has few users, little code that works properly, no strategy, not even a clear, distinctive purpose — and start discussing whether it's a "Facebook killer". 

Now, Ello is certainly interesting. It deserves being reported on. It's not every day that someone chooses not to adopt the standard Startupland business model of herding in the users and milking them for all their personal data. A startup treating its users with the respect that humans deserve? That's news.

But it isn't the first time that someone has tried this. Some analysis of how Ello compares with, say, Dalton Caldwell's pay-to-use social network App.Net, or the decentralised social network Diaspora — I'm tempted to say "the ill-fated Diaspora", but I'm sure I'd get complaints — would be a worthy journalistic endeavour.

So would a comparison of the current state of Ello, as it kicked off its rise into media stardom of the moment last weekend, with other social networks as they, too, struggled through their first few weeks of public existence. It's easy to forget just how rough Twitter was when it made its debut, for example. How did other social networks fare as they found their feet and polished off the rough edges? What were their growth rates? Their uptime figures?

Heck, even some straight reporting of what Ello can and can't do, and what it proposes to do next, would be a Good Thing — especially if it included some questions for the founders.

Questions like, "A manifesto is all well and good, but what does it mean in practice?"

Or, "All these features you say you'll add, when will that be happening?"

Or, "This plea for people to report security vulnerabilities, does that mean you're collecting personal information without having spent any of your $450,000+ in venture capital funding on penetration tests or security audits or a bug bounty? Just how much do you really respect your users' privacy?"

Or, more bluntly, "Seriously, Ello, do you have any actual plan, or even a rough strategy here? Or are you just another dime-a-dozen startup with a vague feel-good idea and a boatload of wishful thinking?"

The problem here is that too many in the tech press seem to have forgotten that we're engaged in a specific kind of storytelling called "journalism". The willing suspension of disbelief isn't meant to be a key feature. We're meant to start with the facts. We're meant to build our analysis on top of those facts, using things called logic and numbers. And if we add opinion into that structure, we're meant to do so fairly and ethically.

And, as an aside, too many in the tech press seem to have forgotten that the word "beta" describes a specific, late stage in the testing of a complete product, when all the features are in place and we're just finding and fixing the remaining elusive bugs. "Beta" isn't meant to be a label to excuse the dumping of a quarter-baked ramshackle piece of junk onto an unsuspecting public, exploiting their natural enthusiasm for something new, and leaving them open to the risk of a security failure.

Ello a "Facebook killer"? Get a grip. This isn't 2004 any more. Facebook is a $200 billion behemoth with the power to crush any serious opposition like a snail.

If some upstart wants to knock Facebook off its throne, it'll have to offer a phenomenally compelling experience that does more than just persuade neophiles to give it a try. It would have to persuade the majority of Facebook's users to abandon years of event planning and family photos, and move everything to a new platform. That's a big ask.

What does Ello offer in that regard? A manifesto. A sparkly emoticon at the end of its bulk emails. Monospaced typography.

It ain't a willing suspension of disbelief we need for this, it's a fully fledged hallucination.

Let's come back in a year and see how Ello is going. For now, though, I'm too busy laughing.

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