Ello? Are You a Product?

ello logo for blogTim Cook, CEO of Apple, recently spoke out—in a thinly veiled jab at Google and Facebook in the form of an open letter to customers—regarding the fact that Apple doesn’t sell customer data to advertisers or other third parties. In a similar vein, a new social network has emerged that directly challenges ad-supported social media by claiming to never sell user data.

The service? Ello.

Ello is getting quite a bit of media attention. It’s an ad-free social media site that’s being labeled a potential “Facebook killer” and the “anti-Facebook.” While no competing social network will likely kill—or even put a significant dent in—Facebook in the near future, Ello’s emergence and the serious attention it’s garnering are a sign that social media is maturing and beginning to serve different niches.

Ello, still in beta, is a free service launched by artists and designers in Burlington, Vermont (where, symbolically, roadside billboards are illegal). It has been described as a hybrid of Twitter and Tumblr. On its website, the company states, “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,” adding the Applesque, “You are not a product.”

Currently, Ello membership is available only via invite (although the service is still gaining 35,000 new signups and 45,000 invite requests per hour). New users are permitted to invite several friends. Unlike most social networks, Ello allows members to follow others as either “friends” or “noise” and doesn’t reveal how you’ve categorized them. Said one newspaper review, “Whatever the online version of ‘new car smell’ is, Ello has it.” This tone suggests that this relatively novel social network is special simply because it’s the new kid on the block—not because it’s truly disruptive in the evolution of social media. Which, of course, remains to be seen.

Echoing Cook’s message regarding customers versus products, the Ello Manifesto, posted on the company’s sparsely designed website, states, “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.”

Further indoctrinating potential users into its customer-focused, David-meets-Goliath culture, the company adds, “We believe there is a better way. 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.” I love the sound of that—and sincerely hope Ello survives past its startup phase. I’d also like to know what Vermont verde these guys are smoking.

Media response to Ello has been mixed, but typically cynical or pessimistic. England’s The Guardian wrote, “We’re turning to the new thing because it’s new, not because it’s good.” CNET reviewed the nascent service with a similar tone: “Plenty of folks are dubious.” AL.com, although supportive of the site, reported, “It’s pretty likely, however, that Ello is a flash in the pan.”

Unlike competing services from LinkedIn and Facebook, Ello lacks a “Like” feature. No doubt this is in response to the fact that it’s one of the most efficient ways in which Facebook and LinkedIn collect user preference data to sell to advertisers. It also currently lacks user blocking and a mobile app. In fact, there’s plenty of features you might be habituated to using on social media that aren’t available in Ello—at least not yet.

If this service is free and there’s no ads, how does it pay for server farms and employee salaries? The company plans to begin offering supplemental “special features” to enhance the user experience. Surely they’re hoping that all of your friends will purchase some of these features and, if you don’t, you’ll suffer feature envy or be incapable of engaging in certain types of communication. Gizmodo said it well: “Think of [Ello] as a freemium social network.”

In the end, Ello might turn out to simply be a relatively short-lived phenomenon. At worse, it could disappear in a few months (after its initial venture capital runs dry). At best, it might gain tens of millions of users and subtly influence services like Facebook and the resuscitated Myspace. Some are speculating that interest in Ello doesn’t necessarily reflect an affinity for this new, hip social network, but rather a disdain for old entrenched players. As The Guardian’s Jess Zimmerman wrote in late September, “Entrenched social networks like Twitter and Facebook would do well to pay attention, because they’re the ships we’re trying to abandon.”

Time will tell if enough people abandon—or, more likely, simply supplement—networks like Facebook and LinkedIn to ensure Ello’s survival. Just the fact that it allows members to use alias names will surely help it gain a few million followers (aliases violate Facebook’s recently introduced “real name” policy that has infuriated members of the LGBT community seeking to avoid harassment). In the meantime, if you’re really curious, stop by Ello’s website and drop your name in the hat, praying to the hipster gods of this new social network for an invite to the party.

It’s refreshing that this newbie service isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to its competitors. “We’re not interested in ruling the world. We think people that are motivated to do things like that have unresolved psychological problems.” Well alright now.

But don’t assume that meteorological success for Ello would hamper the explosion of Facebook, which—at 1.2 billion global users—hasn’t even peaked yet. Also, if a sufficient number of members don’t buy extended features to feed the company cash, this hip service will die before it even gets a chance to appear on the radar of most Facebook or Twitter users.

Probably the best way of describing this quirky social network was provided by a commenter on Gizmodo: “THERE’S A NEW SOCIAL MEDIA OUR PARENTS HAVEN’T RUINED YET!”

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Curt Robbins

[Also check out a follow-up post: Ello in Real Life.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Tweetin’ ‘Bout My Generation

I have two teenage daughters, one in high school, the other a year from entering. Both have been raised with a digital gadget of some type in their hands. At first, they were made by Leapfrog and Mattel and focused on education and dexterity. Later, the children’s mobile device of choice was from Nintendo and delivered gaming and entertainment (“backseat babysitters”). They then moved onto Apple devices, primarily the iPod Touch and borrowed or hand-me-down iPads. And, you know what they say: Once you go app, you’ll never go back.

I stop and think about how they, the pinnacle millennials (born in 1999 and 2001), view technology differently from their parents’ generation. Both they and their parents are gadget-toting online addicts with active social media accounts. The similarities in our perceptions of technology and how we use it far outweigh the differences. But those differences are interesting and worthy of further exploration.

riley for framing 2For people of my generation—middle aged geezers too young to have seen The Who at Woodstock, but too old to have fond childhood memories of Gameboy or Hello Kitty—consumer technology still has a decidedly sci-fi feel to it. We indulge frequently in mobile device tapping and social media because it’s simply so amazing to us. We still have the “gee whiz” afterglow. But our kids don’t hold that same amazement—just like how my generation wasn’t amazed by color TV or electric windows in cars when we were teens. To them, these broadband-connected touchscreen gadgets are the norm. They have almost no memories of not living with one on a day-to-day basis.

Another interesting thing I’ve noted is how it is my generation, the middle-aged dorks, who lust most for the latest technology and better whatever. My daughters are more focused on what flows through their devices, not the devices themselves. They suck down Tumblr and Instagram and YouTube using “computers” and home theater equipment with screens ranging in size from 3.5 inches to 60 inches (afforded by cool wireless streaming tech like Apple’s AirPlay and Google’s Chromecast).

When I asked my thirteen-year-old if she would prefer a new iPad Mini or a new iPod Touch, she seemed disinterested in both—like she simply didn’t need to upgrade because everything she wanted was there on her late-generation Touch. When pressed, which device did she choose? The less expensive, not-as-nice Touch. Why? Because it’s more mobile. Her back pocket is the litmus test. The iPad Mini she considers too big. The Touch (or iPhone), for her, is the perfect size. Sometimes even the youngest generations embrace the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. (For more consideration of smartphone display sizes, see my blog post Smartphone Display Size: Two Perspectives.)

My older daughter, a year or so ago, broke the screen on her iPod Touch. It looked really bad; I couldn’t have used the device for even a day. But she somehow managed with it for several months. To my generation, tech gadgets—especially the best and latest examples—are very much status symbols (just like a sports car, Rolex watch, or expensive dress). And to have a cracked windshield on your BMW would be a shame. Unacceptable even. But to my daughters, all of their friends have either iPod Touches, iPhones, or Android tablets or smartphones. These slick devices aren’t really status symbols to these kids; in their world, everyone is using BMW-grade mobile devices. What matters much more to millennials (at least mine) is the health and vitality of their internet-based social lives, even if they are mostly consuming the communications of others, not necessarily tossing out media themselves.

I’m kind of the opposite. I’d love the latest greatest smartphone or tablet every year. If money grew on trees, I’d always upgrade. It only keeps getting better. But to my daughters, the millennials, the social media that flows through those devices is the real focus. The manner in which they get there—the hardware device in their hands—isn’t nearly as important.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Social Media’s Anti-Socialization Myth.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Social Media’s Anti-Socialization Myth

Last November, I was visiting my in-laws in Maryland for Thanksgiving. After dinner, during a kitchen table conversation regarding the effect of internet-connected mobile devices and social media on the six grandchildren in her house, my mother-in-law asserted that these elements were detrimental to the face-to-face socialization opportunities and practices of the ten to fourteen-year-olds scurrying around her.

She was concerned about the amount of time they were spending using their iPod Touches, iPads, and Nexus tablets to engage in social media using services like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, and Kik. I’ve heard this exact perspective shared by others—often older folks or those who engage with technology less than the average bear. There’s also those who simply don’t share the wanderlust of modern millennials toward their back pocket smartphones and wi-fi-connected touchscreens.

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With all due respect to my mother-in-law, I say pshaw and call BS on this perspective. It’s an attitude and fear that is increasingly pervasive among paranoid helicopter parents and those who spent the bulk of their lives without this technology (whether it was the result of poverty, preference, or simply the lack of its existence). Unfortunately, ignorance breeds fear. The myriad online virtual communities, especially when combined with broadband bit rates, are not corrupting the social skills and manners of our children. In fact, I contend that they are enhancing these brick-and-mortar skills.

Before you call BS on me, let me explain. Via school, marching band, volunteer activities, neighborhood friends, shopping, the library, and other activities, I believe the average middle class child of today gets plenty of face-to-face socialization. Instead of replacing in-person interactions, mobile device-based social media are actually supplementing them. We’re augmenting what we’ve always done as humans. We’re still sitting around camp fires telling scary stories, but we’re now also telling those stories on Tumblr, Facebook, WordPress, and Twitter.

My 13-year-old daughter can slam out text on her iPod Touch faster than any human I’ve witnessed. She owns the iOS keyboard on that little four-inch screen, making it beg and whimper as she hits a words-per-minute level that’s probably in the top five percent of her peers. But this mastery doesn’t come cheap. Practice makes perfect, as my grandmother used to say, and this girl has spent more time locked into her mobile device and sucking down virtual companionship and cultural enrichment from our 20 Mbps AT&T broadband connection than I’d care to estimate. (See? Even a middle-aged tech zealot like me echoes the theme of overindulgence among teens when it comes to social media.)

Considering the huge investment of time and effort she’s made in these app-based networking services, are my daughter’s social skills lacking? Hardly. She’s probably the most social member of our family. I contend that she has twice the social skills of some Amish kid cruelly deprived of technology and modern social media. She can pull it off in-person with a cute charm that will make even a jaded curmudgeon smile, while also maintaining a dynamic and complicated world of relationships on social media. And yes, Aunt Mildred, that’s all without negatively affecting her grades or volunteer activities.

Not only does social media not put a ding in the real-world social skills of these kids, it often directly enhances them. My daughter, when using Instagram to communicate her love for a particular pop band, made a friend in Canada who actually paid us a visit in the States. OMG, social media benefited the real world! People enjoy making black-and-white arguments and ignoring the thousand shades of grey that compose any issue of serious consideration and its real-world ramifications (and effect on our loved ones). The virtual, i.e. social media world feeds our “face-to-face” reality, and vice versa. Ignoring such a detailed dynamic gets a Luddite button pinned to your chest and moves you painfully close to those who believe the Apollo moon landings were filmed in a studio in Southern California.

riley for framing 2This is like arguing whether women or men are better athletes. To address roughly fifty percent of 7.2 billion people in a way that assumes they all have similar attributes or qualities is simply foolish and shows that more of these misguided souls need to take basic stats and psych classes in college. Some kids are really social, and it will show in both their physical and virtual social worlds—which will surely interact. Other kids are shy or introverted, and they will probably exhibit these characteristics in both their online and real-world personas.

In fact, if anything, a virtual or social media-based existence allows those who may be somewhat agoraphobic or simply lack the self-confidence of the average person (sometimes common among teens) to engage with likeminded others in a way possibly too intimidating if performed face-to-face. Working with social media “training wheels” may actually help young people engage in real life, proving to them that they can successfully conduct and gain enrichment from interactions with others—regardless of the forum. Having options is good. Today, our kids have more varied and dynamic social opportunities than at any time in the history of humans.

Another criticism of modern social media is the detrimental effects of the spasmodic multitasking that often accompanies a teen’s use of several different services at once. I would actually contend that juggling a variety of social media helps teens learn the reality of modern life and its requirement of multitasking. The merits, costs, and benefits of multitasking can be argued until the cows come home. Regardless of the inherent effects of multitasking, kids who are active in social media are going to, on average, be better suited to the realities of a task-juggling world—especially fast-paced work environments and cubicle farms, which are largely digital and screen-based (even for non-technical jobs).

Let’s not allow the pros and cons of multitasking (or any element of modern internet-based culture) to obfuscate the fact that the United States is so lacking in competent high-end technical skills that it must import them from countries like India and Pakistan. I would argue that social media often help children and teens to gain an acceptance and comfort level with technology, inviting them into a world where they desire to understand and maybe even create and manage the technical underpinnings of their incredible mobile devices and hyper-dynamic internet-based social networks.

Our children’s socialization skills are surely critical as they mature and enter educational institutions and eventually take on careers and families of their own. But assuming that social media, multitasking, and virtual online communities are somehow nefariously harming the face-to-face lives of our children is bogus. For sharing ideas, educating themselves, being entertained, seeking mentoring, chatting with peers, and otherwise engaging with likeminded people, social media brings an efficiency and cost/benefit ratio that is often impossible in the real world. This is especially true for those separated by great physical distances, like a kid in Tokyo who wants to talk about the TV show Supernatural or the band Panic! at the Disco with a kid in Cleveland.

Is negatively criticizing young people for harnessing the opportunity to dynamically interact and share ideas—across borders, cultures, and stigmas—really the approach we want to take?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Tweetin’ ‘Bout My Generation.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.