A few thoughts on Ello, after using it for a little while today:
Most importantly, I’m glad that a social network is taking both privacy and (lack of) advertising seriously. Ello’s manifesto repeats the the “you are being made into a product” mantra. It’s become a cliché, sure — most recently making an appearance in Apple’s newly-updated privacy statement — but there’s truth and resonance to it.
It’s definitely beta software. It’s semi-broken in Safari 8 — and that’s not the only bug I’ve seen, as searching doesn’t seem to work very well either. The user interface could also use a lot of work; it’s hard to know what kind of page I’m on (to use the familiar Facebook metaphors, my wall? my feed? my friend’s wall?).
For a service which makes privacy a cornerstone of its offering, it’s difficult to tell exactly which items I share are public, and where they’re visible. For instance, my public page shows that I have made 7 posts, but only shows two of them. My friend Caitlin’s public page shows her posts, including my comments on them. It’s unclear to me what would happen if I changed my “Public Profile” setting to “No,” though. Presumably my posts on my own “wall” wouldn’t be visible — but what about my comments on Caitlin’s? (In fact, my comments on Caitlin’s post show up as “User’s public profile not available” when I make this change: but her contextual responses to my comments are still there, making it possible to figure out both my identity and the likely content of my posts.)
Apparently, there are already plenty of username squatters. That’s going to inhibit discoverability.
Speaking of discoverability, it’s almost impossible to search for people. This is partially due to the fact that search plain doesn’t work half the time. And even when it does, it doesn’t seem to return intuitive results: I tried to find a friend by searching for “Firstname Lastname,” which didn’t work, but “firstnamelastname” did. (Their username was not firstnamelastname, either.)
Will the initial burst of interest in Ello drive enough adoption to overcome the entrenched network effects enjoyed by Facebook? That’s highly doubtful. The thrill around Ello today reminds me of the excitement when the now-all-but-defunct app.net launched a couple of years back. That said, app.net seemed mostly of interest to geeks, especially developers. So far, Ello seems to have a wider public attraction.
Ello has chosen to launch without a mobile app. That might be fine for now, but it’s probably not very sustainable in today’s market. They do have iOS and Android apps in the “coming soon” section of their feature list. What’s missing there, though, is mention of an API. Permitting third-party applications might be difficult given Ello’s planned monetization route, which appears to depend on users paying for “special features.” What form these features will take is unclear; I imagine (and hope) it will be more than, say, stickers. (They seem to work for LINE, though…)
And that brings me to my last point: monetization. This remains the huge question mark. Ello has investors, though they apparently don’t own very much of the company. Still, especially as the company grows, the investors and the founders alike are going to want to make money. This isn’t just a matter of striking it rich, of course; the entire integrity of the network will depend on eventual profitability. Without that key factor, Ello may well face the same sad fate as app.net, which was, after all, founded on very similar values to those professed by Ello’s founders.