Ello is an interesting, beautiful but ultimately doomed experiment.
Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed Ello. Already in these early days there is a sense of community building in an alternative space. I enjoy formally reconnecting with my friends as if we are changing rounds in a square dance. The stylistic layout although atrocious is different from Facebook and that makes me happy. The aesthetic visual layout style, font choices and the like relieve my burned in eye fatigue. That it shows all of my friends posts without re-ordering them or injecting advertising, that it is simple and pure - no chat, no events, no distractions is satisfying. Less is more - although this is probably more a result of lack of time more so than intention. Overall Ello shows a possibility of how things could be if a federated approach to social networks was mature. It shows how we could have social groups in different spaces that had a different feel, and possibly (hopefully!) different kinds of conversations.
But the problem with Ello is the same problem with Facebook. It is a centralized "service".
Services are just another riff on the idea of a petty fiefdom, controlled by a few, used by many. They are subject to the same classic risks. These risks are pointed out in detail by Andy Baio: https://ello.co/waxpancake/post/oy73kFfDdhOPh8Jv9z9pFA .
But the key observation is made by Quinn who says social networking should be a protocol. She notes that social networking appears to be like a language in that its value goes up as more people use it: https://medium.com/message/what-does-ethical-social-networking-software-look-like-315373c898ed .
Services like gmail.com and yahoo.com implement email but email itself is an RFC [ http://tools.ietf.org/rfc/rfc5321.txt ]. It is a specification that is implemented by many parties and no one party controls or owns it. Anybody can implement their own email presentation layer and compete against anybody else. If my email service is better than yours I may attract more users. If I am nervous about my security then I can choose to host my email service privately. Nobody has the power to say that I cannot utter certain statements, or that I cannot form certain networks. It's a different beast.
Diaspora attempted to get outside of the service model, implementing both a protocol and a distributed node concept. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaspora_(social_network) ] . But for some reason there was little adoption. Rhetorically speaking: why wasn't there larger scale adoption of Diaspora? If we are concerned about our privacy, control and freedom then why wouldn't we all support this effort? The reason was that Diaspora also implied an interface.
The problem perhaps is that as developers we should define only the protocol and not be invested in the presentation layer or hosting. And we can do so incrementally. It doesn't have to be full blown all at once.
Let's take it as axiomatic that we are in the early days of social networking. That we're all still playing around with the patterns. Ello is just another riff. A few are making a lot of money right now as consolidators (and perhaps even disingenuously failing to live up to a kind of social contract to help strengthen the fabric of the Internet). But we've only been at this for a few decades. Let's pretend that "mature social networking" does not exist yet and when it does it may be a different beast. One that Ello and Facebook will be shredded to tatters by much like MySpace before it.
Once Ello fails (or while it is still stumbling around) what we may wish to consider doing is what the http://indiewebcamp.com/ folks are attempting. To define simple protocols to emulate Facebook like patterns in the open web. To let people comment on each others posts, to upvote each other to create social networks. By doing so piecemeal, by working with existing services, by building bridges to Ello, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, G+ and the like it becomes possible to form a fluid and dynamic set of relationships built on top of the open web itself. Where articles, comments and the like have first class URLS that are not hidden behind a walled garden.
I have specific concerns about Facebook especially - which is why I'm happy to at least play with Ello for a bit. I've been led to understand that private information on Facebook may be leaked to authority figures and put people at risk. I'm concerned about the advertising, the emphasis on PG-Rated communication, the way that our feeds are filtered and the like. All of this contributes to a warped view of reality. It seems as if our opinion and will may be manufactured more than a genuine reflection of our natural inclinations. If there were truly issues to be concerned about those issues may be diluted away from collective attention.
Probably one of the most egregious offenses lately in the Facebook world is the indefensible statements and posture to not allow persona style identities:
This distresses me. It's upsetting for the sake of these people. It's upsetting for many of my friends who represent a radically diverse cross-section of human interests. And it's also upsetting personally because it deprives me of a diverse community of ideas and exploration. I want to foster as diverse a community around me as possible so that I can apprehend the human condition, so that I can see the world more clearly. When we start to censor individual voices, for whatever reason, we start to live in a fake version of the world, one that reinforces our delusions.
Ello simply cannot escape this kind of conclusion as well. With VC funding, with a centralized service it is just a fresh new riff on the same corrupt pattern. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Zuckerburg made Facebook. Through sheer willpower, hard work and smarts he managed to build a world class service. But it reflects his biases. And it reflects who pays the bills. Even if Ello follows the same trajectory it still ends up at a place where there are huge forces around it that cooperatively send it in only one direction - a direction where the population it controls are the market.
Even Twitter went this way. Remember when you could hack on twitter, fetch content via the API and build all kinds of fun projects? Then they throttled and limited and controlled and it stopped being fun.
I often wonder why we fail to have a kind of civilization memory; a recognition of repetition of patterns. We always seem to be interested in building huge self-induced criticalities. We put big piles of money in one place and then are surprised when hyper-predators go after it. We decide to declare war on some country and are surprised when things don't go as we hoped. This is just the same pattern repeated again. As if something new and shiny will save the day.
I think that for today, we should look for a different answer. We should look for ways to democratize social networking. We should focus on simple protocols that re-create some of our favorite features of Facebook in the open web and some of us should probably start migrating away from Facebook so that there is less of a concentration of power in one place.