Ello: A Hopeful Meeting Place for People Fed Up With Facebook

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I picture the internet as a surreal landscape, a place with textures and sensations, a location full of the mundane, the miraculous and the ominous. This visualization was heightened upon my discovery of Debbie Millman's embroidery project depicting the early internet, and continued when I saw maps of undersea wiring wrapped around the entire world, carrying the internet inside. So the websites we visit are glimmering electricity underneath the ocean, a living energy and geography, a terrain to navigate.

This morning, that navigation led me to a new social networking site called Ello. Ello has a manifesto, is still in beta, and is currently invite-only. It crashes a lot and is very slow. It posted a message from me to my sister three times and then wouldn't let me delete the extra two and then deleted all three. However, I love all of these qualities because they indicate something new is happening. Perhaps our post-Facebook era can really begin now. Ello faces many challenges in a playing field dominated by titans and the perennial question of how anything ad-free can be sustainable. Not to mention, there's no "like" button (how will I demonstrate I like something?). These and other concerns occur to me as I try to understand the unfamiliar interface, soak in the novelty of the lovely typewriter-esque font and waste a Facebook-ian amount of time choosing my profile picture.

But, still, there is something astir as I write this. There's a little digital rumble: articles are popping up, Facebook friends are actually defecting. It might be wishful thinking, or it might be just a slight nudge of the paradigm. I'm rooting for the latter, but only time will tell. “People who say it's impossible to create something new imagine a stagnant future," says Paul Budintz, the creator of Ello. "There's a kind of totalitarianism in that attitude. A lot of the data mining and manipulative behavior engaged in by big social networks has that flavor, a real arrogance and cynicism.” Ello was created as the antidote to that totalitarianism, and, if successful, might be able to fulfill a certain collective desire.

Ello Manifesto
Ello Manifesto.

I have no specific hope or expectation at this point, only a curiosity and anticipation about what will happen next. Perhaps nothing will come of Ello, perhaps there will not be the magnificent exodus and revolution I dream of today as I reload my crashed home page, the pleasing minimalist design reappearing on the third try. But I appreciate the potential in this moment, how it feels to participate in a place not muddled by ads, greed and money. It feels unencumbered by the obliviousness of technology merely for technology’s sake. Maybe, just maybe, we can re-set, start over, decide what it is we’re really doing here.

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The philosopher Slavoj Zizek says, "I secretly think that reality exists so we can speculate about it." And reality right now certainly is very strange and interesting, worthy of our most critical speculation. Our technological existence and our lived experiences are ever blurred, and with what repercussions? In his essay, "The Interpassive Subject", Zizek explores the passive state that arises when we're ostensibly interacting, but actually aren't. Women hired to cry at funerals 0r canned laughter on television are compared to online personas in that our “most intimate feelings can be radically externalized.” Certainly social media is social media regardless of its incarnation, with certain trappings and tendencies. Yet, I can’t help but wonder how the intention, format, concept and context of a social network might influence the subsequent experience. Maybe we can move from our passivity to meaningful interaction.

I live in a city where Mark Zuckerburg himself is installing fiber optic cables under the sidewalk in front of his new fortress, mere blocks from my apartment, and where on a random Wednesday I walk out my door and interrupt a fashion shoot for a cell phone ad literally happening on my front stoop. On a lamppost half a block away from this photo shoot is an outraged Xeroxed collage, high school '90s style, an overlapping compilation of words including soul, luxury, innovation and Twitter with images of bombs exploding and fancy cars. Imagine some frustrated person in the midst of their noisy, modern life stopping to cut up a magazine with a pair of scissors and some glue. Ello feels like it is that type of protestation too, simple but dramatic, a much needed alternative.

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Facebook, a place my teenage students have whole-heartedly abandoned, has been deemed in danger of dying out like a disease, and further rendered itself out of touch and irrelevant with its latest naming controversy. A viable alternative that might help create a new kind of dynamic seems really exciting. As I send out my 25 allotted invites I feel a sort of pre-party giddiness. Who will show up? What will happen next? Ello is different than the lackluster contender of, say, Google Plus. In fact, the energy and buzz around Ello is reminiscent of the early 2000s, when I first found out, to my vague horror and fascination, that my new boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend was connected to my childhood friend, thanks to this thing called Friendster.

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