The Facebook exodus is upon us, and its name is Ello. Prompted in part by an escalating series of tone-deaf measures taken up by Facebook, which now aim to constrain users to their given names, a number of users -- among them queers, people of color, and the generally Facebook-fatigued -- have begun to migrate away to a seeming alternative. Presented with a social network that promises an ad-free medium for interaction, complete with a self-stated mission of preserving anonymity and accountability, one might strain to believe that the revolution is nigh, and that there may be a path away from the commerce-weighted natures of social networking.
But if an ad-free social network with its own manifesto sounds too good to be true, it's probably because it is.
One of the symptoms of writing for a DIY publication, like organizing collectively, or like trying to do anything self-actuated and communally-driven, is that you become terribly and instinctively suspicious of things that suggest solidarity in your alternative visions, but which might otherwise coopt your cool shit, and sell it under a different name. So, when a new and mysterious tech platform claims to share your political interests, there is cause to be suspicious.
What is Ello exactly? A cursory look into its history reveals a bit of funny fine print. Launched in 2013 as a "stealth mode startup," Ello pledges to provide a social network that is "simple, ad-free, and beautiful" -- presumably by doing away with the nasty business of commercializing social interaction, and providing some measure of transparency in its user-maker relations.
For a platform that brands itself as transparent, however, it seems difficult to string together three more insidious-sounding words than "stealth mode startup." If you're unfamiliar with the term, it's probably because you aren't involved in the "startup biz,' and so don't subscribe to the entrepreneurial canon of Businessweek or Inc. Magazine. Both of these publications do, in fact, define the term, specifically describing it as a form of savvy strategy with considerable advantages for launching new products: in not disclosing certain projected features or agendas, stealth mode companies acquire good will and seed money -- presumably, with the hopes of ultimately rolling out a sellable concept.
There are many, many more questions about Ello that will undoubtedly surface as it moves through its beta phase, but the most pressing of these right now is who is running Ello, where it gets its backing, and for what reasons. Ello might very well be innocuous (there is always a slim chance of this), or at least innocuously framed; more likely, though, it's the work of an entrepreneurial think tank; and even more likely, Ello is evil -- a lesser one, perhaps, but evil nonetheless.
Ello's handful of creators, whose faces are playfully and ominously obscured by the smiling logo on their homepage, seem to comprise a few good-natured white guys with a passion for clean design and vague charitable ambition. There is, however, at least one name missing from their team, that of Ello's only listed member on the Board of Directors, who also happens to be Managing Director at a venture capital firm. In fact, a quick search into Ello's records reveals $435,000 in venture capital funding from this very firm, of which Ello's site makes no mention; this, despite its promises of transparency, as outlined in its supposed manifesto. Let's take a closer look, for reference:
"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."
Sounds pretty chill, right? Except there's a needling vagueness about these declarations—never bothering, for instance, to mention whom it hopes to empower, or why or where it hopes to actuate this, or whose lives it claims to honor. In short, it's not a manifesto.
As a somewhat dedicated follower of queer, feminist, and critical race theories, I would like to think I can name some examples of notable manifestos that span the genre. I love the cyborg manifesto (‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess'), the S.C.U.M. manifesto (‘Dropping out is not the answer; fucking-up is'), and the Queer Nation manifesto (‘straight people are your enemy'). Without solidifying the features of what makes a manifesto a manifesto, we might note the main thrust of these examples; which is that they present a dangerous idea, an incendiary one, and one that threatens existing power relations, and thus the upheaval of prevailing social forms. A "manifesto" that promises the vaguest sense of beauty, truth, and empowerment does not make for such a consequential vision; in other words Ello's manifesto does not manifest anything concrete, providing, rather, the illusion of an escape from a system that we feel coerced into, not because Facebook is inherently great, but because it serves as a platform for human connection and validation, and, mainly, because a lot of people use it.
Startups are not your friends; nor is Facebook, for that matter, but its evilness seems essential, by way of its pervasive cultural force. But it wasn't that long ago that Facebook was positioned in a similar way to its now manifesto-touting alternative. Facebook wasn't always so vast, starting, also, as a largely closed affair, nor, at one time, having ads, and not yet, in its nascent stages, being a publically traded company. That we've reached a point at which Facebook seems to be the dominant platform for social media is actually dependent on Facebook's success at erasing elements of its own history.
These are the reasons to be skeptical of something claiming to be ad-free, on the one hand, and, on the other, operating on a for-profit, entrepreneurial model. Venture capital is, after all, not given freely, but with the expectation of financial return. This is the kind of compassion-based commerce about which we should be totally wary.
Let's spin out some final points on the question of aesthetics: Ello premises itself on a clean presentation: basic, beautiful, and ad-free. There's a dangerous conflation, however, made here between aesthetic minimalism and political merit -- namely that just because something appears clean, just because it looks, feels and is perceived as pure, then it can't possibly be tainted by corporate interests. Ello claims to hate ads because they are "tacky" and because "they insult your intelligence." I would agree, except that I also believe in the value of tacky and stupid things, and believe, also, that deceptive things are worse than tacky ones.
Ironically, you can almost make a counter-argument for ads, which is that having ads embedded in your preferred platform makes you conscious of the knotty imbrication of social media and capital -- and, conversely, that hiding ads away, and turning to a clean aesthetic, which nevertheless mirrors the financial structure of any other tech startup, is misleading at best, and, at worst, fucked up in a shadowy-board-of-overseers way. But then, we'd have to acknowledge that the project of social media might itself tend toward late capitalism; that our use of its applications makes us complicit in its economic inequities, and that, when we use them, we are, in fact, performing digital labor for the gains of a very few. This is a scary thought, and one that can't be willed away by a black and white interface, seed money, and a largely contentless manifesto page built to conform to, and not overturn social mores.
Ello might posture as a long-awaited alternative, but it (probably) isn't the one we've been waiting for. One of the reasons I can't say for sure is that it's intentionally hiding something, operating, in its current state, as a stealth mode company. One thing, however, seems certain: if Ello is indeed evidence of a great Facebook exodus, we might come to realize that this "revolution" was brought to us by venture capital.