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Product Review: Ello Takes on Social Networking

An early look at social media's rising star reveals user interface design so good, it might convince me not to hate everyone.

I’ve been off Facebook a while now. So when I got my Ello invite, I thought, “All right, let’s do it right this time.” I’m not going to add everyone I’ve ever met. My friends list will be limited to actual friends and family. My hope is this will limit my exposure to tumult, squabble and interference. My brain generates plenty of its own interference. I don’t need outside help. I just want to see what my nephews look like.

There were many reasons to depart Facebook and few reasons to stay. Just as with anything in life, when the cons outweigh the pros, you cut it loose. But the main reason I quit Facebook is because it was shaking my faith in humanity. That sounds dramatic, but maybe my reality is dramatic. Trying to understand and accept the nature of man is a daily struggle for me. Routinely reading on Facebook the intellectually impoverished comments of people I’d known for decades wasn’t helping my crisis.
It wasn’t just discovering that certain schoolhood friends held beliefs I found morally repulsive. I can live with writing a few people off. The hardest part was when I would discover that an acquaintance I liked appeared upon closer inspection to be some kind of vapid simpleton. Losing a friend over ideological differences is a lamentable scenario, but a couple of one-offs doesn’t make me doubt humanity. It’s the repeated discovery that a person I didn’t know well but otherwise admired was revealed to be so uninspiring. It was breaking my heart to think there is far less potential in the world than I once imagined. I wanted to believe in people, but Facebook was making it hard.
So, the second piece to my new approach to social media is trying not to take things so seriously. “Don’t be so sensitive, you dunce,” I will tell myself. “Give people the benefit of the doubt.”
We’ll see how it goes.
Ello Screenshot 1

The first thing most will notice about Ello is its minimalistic aesthetic. The first thing I noticed was @todd, the guy who invited me to join Ello. His circle-shaped avatar is a skinny white guy wearing a prospector’s beard and 3-D glasses with the red and blue lenses. I’m pretty sure I’ve never met Todd, and while I appreciate him letting me in the door, I’ve had quite enough of him and his flippant embodiment of postmodern sarcasm. “Slow down, Colin,” I heard my inner voice say. “Give people a chance.” 
Ello Screenshot 2

So I browsed Todd’s page a bit and learned that he’s a visual artist who works for Ello, one member of the two-man design team Berger and Fohr, responsible for the website’s look. I think Todd did a bang-up job on Ello’s design, but it was time for us to part ways. On his page, there was a small rectangle with three options regarding our relationship. “Friend” was highlighted in gray, and the other two options were “Noise” and a null symbol.
The noise feed is a way of tracking people you don’t want in your friends feed, but still might want to get updates on occasionally. I’m not really into Todd, so I clicked the null symbol, which presented me with a red screen and a critical decision to make. Did I want to block Todd or just mute him? Muting him means I wouldn’t receive email notifications about his activity and he would be removed from my feed, but he could still follow me and comment on my posts if he wanted. Blocking him, though, means he would be muted and, additionally, would prohibit him from viewing or commenting on my posts. Though I enjoy the irony of Todd being disallowed from visiting pages on his own website, I opted for mute.
Ello Screenshot 3

I returned to my friends feed and saw that Todd’s avatar was gone. “Good,” my brain said. An introductory statement from Ello says that anyone added to my friends or noise feeds won’t know how I’ve categorized them, which is a considerate design choice. No one wants to be informed that news about their life is just “noise."
I looked at the blank screen. “All right, Colin, you’re without friends now. Happy?” Beside the friends and noise buttons, I saw a small button with a lightning bolt. “That looks cool.” I clicked it and discovered an activity log, and saw that my wife had accepted my friend request 19 minutes earlier. So, either she had decided to forgive me following our fight from last night or she wanted to continue the battle online. “Why are you so mean?!” is about the only thing I remember her saying from our argument, the basis of which now eludes me.
I clicked my wife’s username and was brought to her page, which was empty. I saw she has one follower (me), and is following two people (me and Todd). I wondered what my wife would make of Todd. She might be even more critical of people than I am. There was nothing for me to see or comment on, so I clicked back to the noise feed. 
Ello Screenshot 7

In the noise feed, I scrolled down and saw a photo that reminded me of a weird movie I like called Gummo. I clicked the photo and nothing happened. I looked above the image and saw it was “/via @theoneswelove.” I clicked that text and was brought to that user's page. Ello allows its users to create anonymous or non-personal accounts like this one, which was described as “an intimate platform for photographers from around the world to portray the people they love, cherish, and find inspiration within.”
The first image I saw was of a naked baby on the beach. I scrolled down and saw some vaguely sexual portraits of an Asian couple and then a bleak still-life photo of a window-lit apple. “This is weird.” It was a little weird, but it was also interesting and kind of cool. I didn’t follow that page, but I’m glad it’s there. I don’t recall seeing anything like that on Facebook. I never thought Facebook was cool – it was just the de facto platform, so I used it until it disturbed me so much I had to stop.
I wanted to explore some more so this time I clicked on an icon I had noticed earlier called “Discover.” This area has four sections to explore: Recommended, Related, Random and Search. I clicked around a bit and noticed a few things.
Ello Screenshot 9

First, Ello seems like a useful platform for creative people who want to share their work. The website's minimalist design allows the images and words that people post to stand out. The neutral black-and-white design allows user content to be the focus and it doesn’t clash with whatever people choose to share. The blue color scheme of Facebook and overall layout had always bugged me. The use of a monospace font on Ello for some reason makes me feel more inclined to share things I’ve written. Maybe it’s because monospace fonts have a kind of classical, typewritten look to them. I never posted personal writings on Facebook because I always thought the cheap feel of the platform would somehow devalue my art.

Another thing I noticed is that browsing Ello for new stuff is easy and fun. I don’t feel like I’m creeping on people because most Ello users look like they post things specifically so other people will look at them. In fact, Ello seems to take into account that today’s culture is increasingly online-focused. A lot of people have social circles maintained exclusively online, and Ello feels aligned with that.

Fundamentally though, it is like Facebook – people post videos and images and things they like or made themselves, there are family photos and animated images taken from films, but the main difference is that, at least so far, browsing Ello doesn’t make me want to throw my computer monitor out the window. In fact, looking at the stuff other people posted made me want to post something of my own, so I grabbed my camera and took a photo of my dog sleeping in the corner. It was easy and fast to post, the image shows up big in the feed, and I think my wife will like seeing it when she checks Ello later.

Ello Screenshot 10

My overall reaction after one day of using Ello is that I like it. It doesn’t force anything on you, and it lets you make the platform what you want it to be. It's a place for connecting and self-expression, which I think is something I've always wanted, even though I'd never considered it before now. It’s simple and fast, and every piece of the interface is intuitive. Even reading through Ello’s rules and terms of service feels accessible and interesting. The bottom left corner of the screen has a WTF (What The Heck) button that expands out to reveal Help, About and Policies buttons for people who want to learn more about Ello, and many will want to.

One of the biggest complaints people have about Facebook is that its business model involves selling user data to advertisers, and Facebook doesn’t have the best track record in dealing with issues of privacy and data ownership. Facebook recently revamped its privacy policy in an attempt to make managing privacy more simple and straightforward, but I would prefer not to worry at all whether the website I’m using is going to do something questionable with my images, writing or even my own likeness. And it sounds like Ello’s idea from the start is that they won’t. 

Ello begins its Terms of Use by acknowledging that reading the document might feel like a “boring waste of time,” but it recommends you read it anyway. I will skim Ello policies eventually, but for now, I’m just interested in what happens to the dog picture I uploaded earlier. Does Ello own it now? Will it be sold for nefarious purposes? Will I see it in an advertisement for a product that calms spastic animals?

I skimmed down and found what I wanted. “We don’t claim ownership over any content that you post on the Ello Services,” the terms read. However, it goes on to say that by posting an image, I give Ello a “non-exclusive, royalty-free, world-wide, perpetual, transferable license to use, store, reproduce, adapt, … distribute and publicly display your Content in order to provide the Ello Services.” In other words, I can’t post an image to the website and then sue Ello for hosting the image. Seems reasonable. I’m not too concerned with the details. The fact that the founders are thinking carefully about privacy and data ownership from the start and asking their users to keep them honest is good enough for me.

In a Huffington Post interview, our friend Todd explained that Ello will earn money by charging for additional services. “We're going to sell features and experiences that enable people to customize Ello to keep making Ello better and better,” he said. “We have some other revenue streams planned as well,” he continued mysteriously. Good on you, Todd. I don’t mind buying things that I want if the people selling it are up front about the exchange, even if that person's attempts at blithe irreverance make my stomach hurt.

I’m excited about Ello. I like sharing photos and seeing what other people are up to. And I think some part of me also sees the website as an opportunity to reshape my approach to relationships: a warmer, fuzzier Colin, perhaps. Someone who tells good-natured jokes, whose wife doesn’t ask why he’s so mean, who overlooks the damaging hypocrisy and narcissism of society, a caring soul who embraces the lazy, the weak, the tired and hungry – like an affable, fleshy version of the Statue of Liberty. It seems unlikely, but I haven’t given up on myself yet.

Since the bulk of this review has been something of a self-indulgent treatise and not the government-oriented review I think my editor expected, I should at least make a nominal attempt at examining how government might be affected by Ello. I predict government will be affected by Ello in the same way it’s affected by all new technologies, which is that a given municipality’s success, or lack thereof, will be directly correlated with the foresight and creativity of its IT leaders. If Ello becomes a popular platform among the makers and artists of the world, I think it would behoove government IT to make the most of it. The public sector is constantly expelling a torrent of rhetoric about the importance of engaging creative young citizens on their terms rather than standing on a failed tradition that new generations reject. A pragmatist will see Ello as an opportunity, as I did, to mend the threadbare remnants of past relationships, and do things differently this time.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.
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