How to Fail at Social Networking and Other Lessons from Ello

Copyright © 2014 by Paul Budnitz
Copyright © 2014 by Paul Budnitz

Last year was abuzz with a (supposedly) major change in the social media world: Ello.

For the 6 of you who didn’t hear about this in a thousand news articles and thinkpieces, Ello is a social media site created by Paul Budnitz and other entrepreneurs with a single goal in mind: to build a social networking site that wasn’t Facebook. Everyone agreed that Facebook’s heavy reliance on advertisers, especially when they gave them users’ personal information for targeting their ads, was a terrible thing, but a few things kept the Great Social Media Migration from occurring.

I should know because I was one of the lucky few who got an invitation to join Ello.

Let me start from the beginning. Because Ello wasn’t relying on ad revenue, the beta website wasn’t open to the public. Instead, you could apply for a chance to sign up for Ello based on an as-yet unknown standard by the admins. So I clicked the “Apply” button and waited about a month or so.

As soon as I got in and created my Ello account, I noticed a few things that were… off.

1. A Very Minimalist Design

I’ll admit, part of Ello’s appeal was its minimalist design. After dealing with so many Web interface updates from Facebook, I thought I’d be glad to see a sleek and efficient Web portal that could let me stay social without thinking too much about how to tailor all my words to the site’s design.

But as I started to play around the site, I came to realize that maybe it was too streamlined. I kept searching for buttons and links that would have at least been obvious on sites like Twitter or Reddit, my eyes drifting over monochromatic pages, trying to distinguish “About Us” from “Manifesto” for the five-hundredth time. I might be an amateur when it comes to Web design, but I felt like the minimalist appeal is something that would ward off prospective users, especially if they’re younger and used to something with higher-end graphics.

2. A Small Pool of Users

Again, like many users, the idea of Ello as an exclusive Web community intrigued me. I wondered what kind of people would belong to this closed circle—besides the obvious anti-Facebook crowd, of course.

Then I signed up and started adding friends. What I found was that Ello is mostly populated with… well, “hipsters” is such an overused stereotype these days, so let’s just say “artistes.” Instead of status updates and shared news stories, I was treated to collections of photographs of mundane objects, stunning landscapes, and precious little commentary. Yes, it’s all very pretty, but that’s really it.

And no, Ello, telling me that I’ll eventually get the privilege of paying for my subscription to your site doesn’t help. I’ll subscribe to Netflix because I know I’m getting the content that I want from it; I’ve no idea what else you can offer me besides another “manifesto.”

3. Little Opportunities to Build Off Shared Interests

Perhaps the biggest problem I had with Ello was the end result of its minimalist design and exclusive pool of users: no chance to really network. How could I find a community of like-minded people to start chatting with? Where’s the page or group or hashtag for Star Wars enthusiasts? Or Gravity Falls mystery-seekers? Or anime shipping fanatics? I felt like someone who’d been dragged to an art gallery by a friend, being forced to mingle with a crowd that I had nothing in common with, save our desire to see something “new.”

What We Can Learn From the Ello Experience

I didn’t last more than 2 weeks on Ello. I felt no remorse about deleting my account and removing the site from my bookmarks. All I had was a sense that I’d dipped my toes into some murky new waters, only to reconsider and try somewhere more familiar. Maybe that means I couldn’t “handle” the Ello crowd, and if so, then that’s fine. I’m more than happy with my folks on Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest, where I can point to shared interests and how these sites actively encourage my discovery of new things from awesome people.

Billing youself as the “Anti-Facebook” is great for advertising (ironically enough), but there’s a huge difference between a novel concept and an interesting new idea. An idea has actual meat on the bones. It can grow and evolve, adapting to the needs of its environment rather than living and slowly asphyxiating in its own bubble.

None of this, of course, means that I’m running back to Facebook or Google+ with open arms either. I use those sites sparingly, getting more mileage out of the likes of Twitter or Tumblr. Because, in the end, if you’re offering me a sleek user interface with a simple search function that lets me find the people and diverse content? That’s social media I can get behind.

Have you tried Ello? Are you an active user still? In either case, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


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