this is not a post about ello

This is not a post about Ello. Because Ello is so last Friday. But the rapid rise of and backlash against upstart social media network Ello (if you haven’t been paying attention, see here, here, here) reminded me of something I was wondering a while back.

Lots of people are dissatisfied with Facebook — ad-heavy, curated in a way the user has little control over, privacy-poor. And it looks like Twitter, which really needs bring in more revenue, is taking steps to move in the same direction: algorithmic display of tweets, with the ultimate goal of making users more valuable to advertisers.

The question is, what’s the alternative? There have been a lot of social network flavors of the month, built on a variety of business models. Some of them, like Google Plus, are owned by already-large companies that would be subject to similar business pressures as Facebook and Twitter. Others, like Diaspora (remember Diaspora?), were startups with an anti-Facebook mission (privacy, decentralization), but collapsed under the weight of their own hype.

I can’t imagine that a public utility model would work for a social network — I just don’t see “government-owned” and “fast-moving technological change” going together successfully. But I keep wondering why a Wikipedia model couldn’t work. Make it a 501(c)3. Attract some foundation funding — it’s a pro-democracy project. Solicit gifts from pro-privacy people in the tech industry — there are lots of those. Then once it’s off the ground, ask users for donations.

Sure, there is the huge, huge hurdle of getting enough of a network base to attract new users. But it seems like the costs should not be insane. If it only takes 200 employees to run Wikipedia, as large as it is, how many would it take to get a big social network off the ground? Facebook employs 7000, but a lot of them have to be in the business of figuring out how to sell Facebook.

Maybe there have been (failed) efforts like this and I just haven’t noticed. Or maybe the getting-the-user-base issue is really insurmountable. But it seems like if a real Facebook alternative is to emerge, it can’t just be from a corporate competitor (e.g. Google), and the startup/VC model (e.g. Ello) is going to be susceptible to all the same problems as it grows. Why not a different model?

Written by epopp

September 30, 2014 at 2:21 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on New Combinations and commented:


    Juan Felipe Espinosa

    September 30, 2014 at 2:25 pm

  2. It’s funny — you see a similar argument for newspapers ( on pro-democracy grounds with lots of outstanding examples like ProPubilica demonstrating the possibility for transitioning a once for-profit industry into a non-profit one through dedicated funding. I’d also argue, you can read Jeff Bezos’s bailout of the Washington Post in a similar way: tech giant flush with money who also likes democracy gives back.

    Where the rubber fails to meet the road with the social network example is that social networks are currently a flourishing industry with growing revenue opportunities and new users, as opposed to a declining industry with dim prospects for its future–not exactly a textbook market failure. It’s hard to imagine competing for foundation dollars when VC firms are beating down the door to finance the same projects.



    September 30, 2014 at 3:27 pm

  3. Nice analogy. And that’s a good point about how hard it is to make the case when there’s lots of VC floating around. But I still think a spirited campaign emphasizing the need for privacy, the desirability of not having the users be the product, and so on – i.e. the democracy angle – could attract support from the right sponsors (individual and foundation), especially with an emphasis that the entry of VC necessarily means you need a good money-making plan, thus ensuring the eventual need to commodify users. I mean, there’s clearly a lot of dissatisfaction with the present options, so it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t resonate with some subset of people with money to spare.



    September 30, 2014 at 3:59 pm

  4. It’s odd. Society is decentralized (at least when viewed internationally). Internet architecture is decentralized. Web architecture is decentralized. But in the fifth decade of the Internet and the third of the WWW, we’re at a juncture where centralized intermediation is attributed value.

    Many of us consider this just a moment in time. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that many of us hope this is just a moment in time!

    While not presented as a social network per se, reading this post I knew you’d enjoy finding out about the recently launched hi:project – From the ‘about us’:

    “We pioneer the human interface, the successor to the user interface. We celebrate the human not the user, the individual not the worker, the person not the consumer, helping everyone contribute more value to and derive more value from society and the organizations in their lives.”

    Liked by 1 person


    September 30, 2014 at 6:33 pm

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