Ello: Be ready to say goodbye

Ello, the newest social network, has little to recommend from it.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

I live a lot of my life on social networks. This comes from being a writer who works out of a home-office. I'm much more likely to see my friends online than I am in real life. So when Ello first made its appearance I was hopeful. After a few days on it, I have to say I'm finding the site to be pretty hopeless.

Ello's design may look clean, but it's hard to use.

I didn't expect it to be great. This is a beta operation. You can't expect much from a beta, but you can see the design, and if you look closely, the ideas behind the design.

So, when you see all that white space you know this is the anti-Facebook. Indeed, that's why I think Ello was so popular — 31,000 people per hour were joining the site in September — when it first appeared. Facebook, for all its popularity, has annoyed many of its billion-plus users by experimenting on its members and by more recently outing some of its LGBT users with a new real name policy. While Facebook backed off of this policy as public outrage grew, and Ello reaped the benefits.

Unfortunately, while Ello'a design looks clean, it's also confusing. I mean, it's nice that you can follow other users by dragging their circle icons into "friends" or "noise" categories — shades of Google+ circles — but it's not at all clear at first that you can do that.

In addition, it is not at all clear, with the site's annoying almost-invisible gray text, how to do such simple things as posting or editing an update or uploading an image. I also really don't understand why comments on a post are in newest to oldest order. I find that more annoying than useful.

There's also a long, long laundry list of missing features. These include simply being able to link to Web pages, and the ability to block other users.

Last, but not least, the site just blows up way, way too often. I've had pages lock up as often as they've rendered correctly. That may just be me because other people I know haven't had the bad luck I've had with it. But, to me, the site shows every sign of not being able to scale to meet the demand.

To scale up, even in the days of cheap cloud services, takes money. Ello, for better or worse, is saying that it's not going to turn to advertising for its main source of revenue. In theory, that means your data, while open to anyone who wants to search the site, can't be used for the grist of the advertising mill that has made Facebook so annoying.

Instead, here's Ello's business model, in so much as it has one, according to Paul Budnitz, one of its founders: "In its most basic form, Ello will be fun and free to use. But after that there are features that some groups want really badly — for example one of the most requested features is the ability to control multiple accounts from a single log in. We might charge a dollar for that. It would be like the App store."

In other words, it's a freemium service. The bare-bones Ello will be free, but for a other, premium features, you'll have to pay to upgrade your account. That works with online games but I don't see that scaling for a social network.

This isn't the first time a "new" social network has gotten a lot of attention. Diaspora, back in 2010, was an open-source attempt to address many of the same concerns driving people to Ello: Privacy, putting users in control of their data, and freedom to post whatever they want under whatever name they'd like. While Diaspora is still around, it's come to little.

Other such would-be Facebook rivals, like AppleSeed, OneSocialNetwork, and Lorea, died out. Others, including Elgg and Ning are still around and give you the tools you need to build your own, small-scale social networks.

None of these came close to rivaling Facebook. Ello won't either.

If you really want an alternative to Facebook, Google+, the second largest social network in the West with approximately 343-million active users is, despite constant trash talk, still alive, well, and active. You'll find me there and on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and others. But, Ello? I'll keep the account for now, but I don't expect to be using it any more than I would my MySpace account.

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