This will be a theoretical post as, like many others, I haven’t gotten an Ello invite so that I cannot give you the insider’s tour of the network. Reading about Ello and the awareness explosion of the last few days, though, is encouraging in many ways. Why? Because though often mocked, tech’s “spirit of innovation” is alive and well and Ello’s current success is proof.
When Larry Page replies to claims that Google is a monopoly in search, he likes to say that they started as a scrappy start-up and succeeded because they had a better product. “On the Internet,” says Page “competition is one click away.” He claims that the public has the power to switch and can do so at any time a new technology comes along that they think is better. While true in theory, it has always been scoffed at because going up against big incumbents is challenging even if the product itself is better. It’s even more challenging to go up against a social network because, you know, the network effect. Everyone is already on Facebook, it’s very difficult to switch when no one is on the competitor’s site (see: Google+)
So, with a general unease with Facebook’s attitude towards user privacy, the unhappiness with feed manipulation and now the uproar over user names and identity, it seems that Ello was the right product that popped up at the right time to start growing organically and exponentially. Again, note that I haven’t had the opportunity to register for Ello and I’m basing this post on the few public profiles that I’ve looked at and their “about” pages.
Looking at their manifesto, Ello addresses user concerns with Facebook head-on:
“Your social network is owned by advertisers. 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.” Ello is putting users before advertisers and adds “You are not a product.”
That’s an appealing value proposition for users who are fed up with not getting what they want out of Facebook. The bitter pill, which the new users may not have had time to digest yet, is that Ello needs revenue to grow. Most (if not all?) social networks started off as being free to users and eventually supported by advertising revenue. This has become such standard operating procedure that Ello might have a hard time getting users to pay for what they have been conditioned to expect as free. Ello wants users to pay for features: “If we create a special feature that you like, you can choose to pay a very small amount of money to add it to your Ello account forever.” The question is, are users fed up enough with the free offerings available to put their money where their mouth is and actually pay for a social network?
It’s not impossible. After all, after years where news was free, the New York Times is able to charge for online access (albeit with limited success) and, as of June, have 831,000 paying online readers proving that user conventions and expectations can be changed. Could it work for Ello? Again, it depends on how unhappy users are with other, free options, how Ello develops as a product, and how many other users will make the switch, prompting others to follow them.
Maybe Larry was right after all.