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Ello - First Impressions

Post created 2014-09-28 14:40 by Gabe Koss.

What the hell is Ello? I suppose that isn't the right question to ask if you're reading this. Perhaps a more approriate question is "Why the hell should I care?"

Ello is a new social media site founded by VT local serial entrepreneur Paul Budnitz. Much like Googles "Don't be evil" mantra Ello is a social media site founded with a manifesto:

Your social network is owned by advertisers.

Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that's bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate -- but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.

You are not a product.

I have to say I pretty much love this, at least the concept of it anyway. There has, however, been some criticism already from the fringes even as Ello starts to go viral and draw attention from thousands of angsty Facebook users desperate to feel more in control of the medium they use to communicate.

Aral Balkan wrote an intriguing post titled "Ello, goodbye." in which he challenges the validity of this claim after having already openly taken nearly $500k in VC money.

In his post Balkan argues that ultimately taking VC means that Ello & Budnitz will be beholden to the investors because "venture capital means exits". He finishes the piece with

I'm leaving Ello. Before it can grow. Before it can exit. And I suggest that you do the same.

Or, even better, do not join it in the first place.

While I don't agree with everything he said I do feel that there is some space for concern whenever money gets involved. However, if your ultimate goal is to start disrupting Big Social Media you need money. It is nearly impossible to build for webscale on a shoestring budget so VC will probably always be involved. The trick will be managing and controlling that relationship and not letting the VC money disrupt the mission. A tricky path to walk, to be sure.

Personally, I'd be more than willing to pay for a social media service which holds firm to values, is beholden to customers not investors and does not overly track, log or sell user data.

All of that aside I am fortunate to have a Beta account as @koss and started playing with Ello a couple days ago and here are some of my initial impressions.

People are hungry for it

Currently the Ello beta is invite only. When you get an invite also receive a limited number of invites you can send to your friends.

Upon joining Ello I the availability of invites on Facebook and people of all sorts have been clamoring for them

Interface & Design

The Design is lovely and simple with a minimal set of iconography and nice use clean simple monospace fonts. Of course the feature set is still relatively limited so going forward I'll be very interested to see how well this is maintained as a more robust set of features is developed and integrated with the user interface.

I mentioned that I do like the iconography but I also feel that it can be a bit overly minimalist at times.

In the above image you see a post I made. The post looks pretty good. To extend the picture of the interface I began to create a sample comment. See that little grey arrow below the comment box? That is the submit button. Granted the hover state makes it more clear but I can tell from the chatter that some people are having a bit of a rough time figuring out how to use the interface to accomplish their social media goals.

One thing you can't tell from the screen shot, and I absolutely love this, that image is an animated gif! Facebook doesn't support inline gif posting and this alone is a huge win in my book for Ello. Gifs are a huge part of the new media internet and supporting user generated animated content is crucial.

Direct Messaging

One huge gap I see is the lack of messaging. Accoridng to the ello feature roadmap it is an upcoming improvement which will be seemless and inline using the @@username syntax.

All jokes aside about privacy being dead -- which it basically is -- for people to utilize a site as a basic daily communications medium they need the ability do directly message each other without broadcasting to the entire world internet.

If I had been driving product management for Ello I might have delayed public beta till this feature is in place.

In addition to this failure of the communication platform they also render comments in what I believe to be the reverse order, namely with the newest first. This effectively means it isn't practical to use Ello to be part of a conversation as you will have to scroll to the bottom first and read it in reverse, and who wants to do that?

Lack of social feedback

Another core feature I see as missing is a mechanism for social feedback. Facebook has likes & shares, Twitter has favoriting or retweeting and Reddit has upvotes/downvotes.

Ello has nothing along those lines. Beyond that, it doesn't even have a notification system for new comments and so forth. When I log into Ello I am only made aware of a new comment or notification if I see it in my stream or happen to notice the announcement email.

Interestingly enough Ello does indicate the number of views a post has received which I think is a valuable metric but without having a way to tell someone you like something there is no way to have a sense of how content is received and that triggers a significant increase in content quality and curated feeds.

Scale

Another challenge facing Ello with Beta customers comes down to basic web scale issues. Of course they are still working out kinks and their API and UI have crashed a few times in Beta. This is perfectly normal and expected given the viral nature of their cascading popularity and interest.

The problem here is that most users have no idea why a system would behave strangely and almost take it personally when it doesn't behave exactly how they expect. Regardless of ads and data privacy concerns we are pretty spoiled by Facebook and other sites of this caliber. They have incredible, cutting edge infrastructure and fan-out capabilities which create a seamless and instantaneous feedback loop allowing the site to feel like they are chatting in person or in real time.

Platform Support & Mobile

Along with scale I think they are going to quickly need to support a wider variety of platforms. To be a successful social media outlet you need to support as many people as possible and this will need to take the form of cross browser support and testing but also improved mobile support

As of today the mobile site is trash and there are no mobile apps which means half of the people I would be interacting with aren't able to engage even if they have an invite because they primarily want to access it with mobile. Our lives are mobile and social media needs to be to survive.

Bottom Line

I really like Ello.

I don't know if it will succeed or take off but I sincerely hope it does. Its time for an alternative technology which is driven by a moral goal and not simply by a manipulative interface designed to funnel us onto advertisements or commerce pages.

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