Before you crack those knuckles and start your e-mail to me: I know. I talk about Facebook a lot.
I balk at the bubble-enforcing dictates of its algorithms, I growl at its glut of ads and useless content, I moan over its bottomless hunger for self-documentation, and every day seems to offer up some fresh inspiration to resent its ubiquity and reject its mounting Zuckitude.
And though its most valuable services as a quickie directory of my friendzone and a birthday reminder platform are just handy enough for me to keep my account (it’s a 14-day ordeal to delete if I choose otherwise), I am trying to decentralize it from my online life. (With 1.2 billion users, that’s kind of like swearing off a sizable chunk of Earth.) Call it Operation #Facebolt.
My longing gaze elsewhere joins that of millions the world over (including an estimated 11 million crucially clicking US youngsters) who’ve peaced out entirely over the past year or (gasp!) never signed up in the first place. But I also join some freshly dissatisfied factions.
Facebook’s recent hardline enforcement of a policy that requires users to appear under their real names has drawn the ire of LGBTQ users (especially from the realm of drag), abuse victims, and thousands of others who prefer to determine their own online identities. Others, like Don Blair, a fellow at the Cambridge-based Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, cite Facebook’s insidious emotional experiments by means of users’ news feeds as the last straw. “The subtle manipulation of a communications channel that most consider to be free from such manipulations seems to me to be even more worrisome than more overt censorship,” he wrote in a post on Medium.
One study out of Princeton University released earlier this year used epidemiological models — likening the way we adopt and abandon social-media networks to the way we contract and recover from diseases — to predict that Facebook stands to lose up to 80 percent of its most active users by 2017.
One challenge facing those seeking to ditch Facebook has been its particular hold on users. Ilya Vedrashko, a senior vice president and director of consumer intelligence at ad agency Hill Holliday who specializes in “social listening,” sees Facebook’s grip as rooted in fundamental principles of pleasure.
“Facebook has a very interesting psychological layer, something Friendster and even MySpace didn’t really have, of reinforcing people’s behavior, providing chunks of pleasurable experience that are small but consistent over time,” he says. “The reason why people come back to Facebook is that they can’t find a substitute for those same pleasurable experiences elsewhere.”
That is, once you start “liking” it’s hard to stop; and if that sounds familiar, it should. For Vedrashko, smoking is the most appropriate parallel to our Facebook addiction. “The quit rate, six months after trying to quit smoking, is like 2 or 3 percent,” he says. “People relapse, and they relapse because they develop a neurochemical dependency on it.”
The alternatives that exist have proven iffy at best. Despite operating as a direct extension of an empire, Google+ maintains a usership of only 300 million regular users, a quarter of those for Facebook, as well as functionality generally indistinct from Facebook’s. And though Google+ recently did away with its own real-name policy, it doesn’t do much to allay the qualms of those looking for a space free of ads and unsteered by algorithms.
Elsewhere, the decentralized, independent Diaspora* social network (which has recently been revealed as a critical tool for ISIS communications) has failed to emerge as a practical competitor, especially following its stumbling Kickstarted rollout.
Into this space has come a most unlikely underdog that has gained a sudden and sweeping momentum. Ello, a small, invite-only, formerly private social network created by seven artists and programmers, may still be operating in beta, but it has seized upon the primary gripes of the Facebook-disenchanted without much effort. A simple manifesto posted to its homepage started making the rounds, aiming its charming animus less toward Facebook than the ad-cluttered social media landscape in general.
“Your social network is owned by advertisers,” it reads. “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.”
Clicking to agree with the manifesto gives you a variety of options for sharing it. Clicking to disagree? That zooms you right back to Facebook, which Ello founder Paul Budnitz doesn’t even consider a competitor.
“We’re not here to try and rule the world,” he says. “We’re not trying to collect everyone’s data and make a virtual image of everyone in the world and sell that. We’re building a business. Our business does not have to be worth a billion dollars for this to be profitable and for it to work well. It can just be a good business.”
Minimally designed, and largely populated by artists, designers, and creative types, Ello’s aggressive pose against advertising and its commitment to remain “totally free forever” have prompted something of a minor exodus from Facebook. (Many users have altered their Facebook profile pictures to obscure their own faces with Ello’s smiley logo.) The exodus may not be minor for long. In August, Ello had only 90 members, mostly fellow designers and friends of the creators. Over the past month, as members invited their friends, Ello’s enrollment has been doubling every three or four days. Last week found the site gaining about 30,000 users per hour, as well as what Budnitz calls “tens and tens and tens and tens” of thousands (and rising) awaiting invites. Ello will allow those users in incrementally as new features (like enhanced privacy and blocking controls, and “Love” designations for posts) are implemented.
Budnitz imagines a more invested community of users on Ello and a site that finances itself by offering inexpensive optional features to specific user groups. These might include allowing a single login to access multiple accounts (handy for business owners like Budnitz, who, in addition to founding the toy and fashion company Kidrobot, owns Budnitz Bicycles), allowing users to alter their color scheme, or offering special emoji packs created by high-profile artists.
“It’s a little like network television before the Internet,” says Budnitz. “When I grew up in the ’70s and in the ’80s there was just network television, and the game was how many ads can they show you before they drive you away. Turns out it was quite a lot.”
The complete absence of advertisements contributes greatly to Ello’s clean feel, and its minimal design goes a long way toward influencing the conduct of its users (the average Facebook squabble would on Ello come off like a hair-pulling brawl in a gallery). But the design and the ethos together effectively streamline the functionality of the site: With no advertisers to please, there’s a lot less clicking around. Ello’s navigational demands are jarringly subdued.
It’s as promising a candidate for the next great social media lily pad as I’ve seen, and after a week on Ello, returning to Facebook for anything feels a lot like grabbing a bag of clothes from the apartment of a lousy ex. But once the gang’s all here, it remains to be seen if Ello’s alluringly clamor-free quietude remains intact. As the invites and expectations pile up, it may become clear that Ello isn’t for everyone. And if so, that may be its best feature.
More coverage:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.