There’s a hot new social network in town called Ello, and despite its notably (and poorly executed) “minimalist” interface, people have been flocking to the site in droves. Business Insider recently asked performers at a burlesque festival why they’re using the new network, and the answer was simple: Identity. Facebook had marginalized and ostracised these performers for using pseudonyms, names that the performers have used since childhood or adopted later in life to protect their privacy, and they needed a new place on the web to connect with their respective communities. Enter Ello, the new minimalist social network which boldly proclaims “You are not a product” in the company’s manifesto.
While the current iteration of the site may not sell user data to advertisers now, there’s no guarantee this will remain the case in the future. As ind.ie designer Aral Balkan has pointed out, Ello has already taken a venture capital investment, which puts it on the startup fundraising treadmill which is easy to get on but hard to get off. Their current plans for monetization include offering paid add-ons, akin to the mobile gaming industry’s in-app purchase business model. Whether this takes hold with a social networking audience that’s used to trading privacy for “free” remains to be seen. What is certain is that Ello will eventually fail, and there’s not much they can do about it.
The problem with Ello – and all centralized social networks – is that the users do not own their Identity or the data created through that Identity. They may be granted the temporary privilege of exclusively controlling an Identity account on the website, but they will never truly own their Identity or data, which remains in the Ello silo and can be stripped from them at a moment’s notice with little recourse aside from voice or exit. Ello could open their API or allow data backups similar to what Facebook and Twitter already offer, but this would hardly be consolation when communication with long-time connections is abruptly cut off. A social network profile is a creative curation of experiences, not just a series of cells in a database.
There’s also the inherent privacy concerns over third-party access to a user’s personal data by employees, contractors, server hosts, and governments. Centralized social networks can create a false sense of security. Some users may come to think of their “private messages” as truly private, and share things with their connections that could be personally damaging if the information fell into the wrong hands. The centralization of personal data with third parties can be dangerous, particularly to activists whose networks can be surveilled by governments that can then apply pressure to people in an activist’s social graph or use social network status updates to track an activist’s location, mood, relationship or employment status, and other sensitive information.
The truly evolutionary and transformative social network will be the one that starts with sovereign control of Identity by the individual. Starting with this premise as the foundation, the social networks of the future will enable truly user-centric experiences that compromise on neither quality nor privacy. One’s data will be stored in a personal cloud, with access controlled by the owner’s sovereign Identity. Application development and code audits will be crowdfunded by users, with the results released open source for further inspection and iteration. With Identity and personal data firmly under the control of the individual, relations online can begin to more accurately reflect relations in the meatspace. People can begin to re-contextualize their identities, sharing information only with specific groups based on relevance, rather than being forced to share everything with everyone, such as on Twitter, or being able to selectively share with their network, such as on Facebook and Google+, but have no choice over whether or not to share with corporations and governments.
Such a social network is technologically possible. Personal clouds, crowdfunding, private communication protocols, sovereign Identity systems, and the open source software and hardware needed to put it all together are already real. It’s just a matter of putting the right team together and giving them the resources they need to properly execute on and follow-through with this vision. If you’d like to help, let’s talk.