For a while it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Facebook. We’d sit there, clicking idly on clips of the planet dying or being fracked to death. And the newsfeed would roll on, to the buckets of ice water, the lists of albums that mean something to someone, the updates from people you may or may not want to call friends. Facebook was one of things about modern life that we didn’t particularly like but that was somehow inevitable.
But over the summer things started to change. The Snowden leaks highlighted the overlap of corporate social media and the state intelligence agencies. Then we learned that Facebook was working with academics to manipulate the mood of its users. In September, in a moment of what students of imperialism would call over-reach, Facebook suspended the profiles of drag queens until they conformed to the company’s “real name” policy. This was consistent with the company’s neurotically simple-minded approach to the question of identity.
In a 2011 book, the company’s CEO Marc Zuckerburg was quoted as saying that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”. Of course Zuckerburg’s insistence on the indivisibility of the self dovetailed neatly with Facebook’s business model. If you won’t own up to everything you think, say and do, how can advertisers expect to manipulate you?
Zuckerburg’s insistence on the indivisibility of the self dovetailed neatly with Facebook’s business model. If you won’t own up to everything you think, say and do, how can advertisers expect to manipulate you?
It was a remark in the same spirit as Eric Schmidt’s warning that “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”. They weren’t trying to sound sinister, but they were saying that privacy was a thing of the past, so that’s how it came across.
The big winner from Facebook’s attempt to make drag queens fly straight has been Ello (ello.co). It’s a social network that doesn’t require users to register with a real name. But that hardly makes it unique. It has a much more comprehensive sales pitch to potential members, a “manifesto” even. It doesn’t carry adverts. It promises that it won’t sell its members’ data. It assures you that “you are not a product”. As if that isn’t enough, it even practises “principled graphic design”. That sort of thing only matters to a minority, but it’s the minority that Ello is pitching for right now.
Ello is funded – $435,000 from FreshTracks – it’s focused and it has its public relations strategy properly thought through. It is artfully playing on our principled objections to big data while appealing to our desire to be part of something glamorous and exclusive. Ello knows that we have more than one identity, and that disinterested concern for justice coincides with vanity and self-love.
You can’t just join Ello; you have to be let in. Existing members can invite friends and people can ask permission to join. The exclusivity works. According to one of its founders, a bicycle entrepreneur from Vermont, Paul Budnitz, they are receiving more than 31,000 email requests an hour. Imagine a club with art directors, designers, photographers, and artists queuing outside in their hundreds of thousands. All this for a corporation registered in that not particularly hip low-tax jurisdiction, Delaware.
So this is a story of social power and venture capital. Much like Facebook itself, which started at Harvard and spread through the world’s universities, beginning with the rest of the Ivy League colleges. It piggybacked on the hectic sociability of students and when it spread into the mainstream, it came with associations of youth, fun and smarts that were inextricable from its origins and crucial to its success. Now Ello promises a less creepy business model, prestige by association and the excitement of a new start.
But the fundamental division of owners and members remains the same. Ello will gather anonymised data from its members and then sell them “features for a few dollars”. Doubtless the distinction between an app and an advert will blur over time, even if Ello has to be careful not to irritate its members as it monetises them. At all times, the owners of the network will know far more than its members.
Ello tells visitors to the site that they not a product. But members of the network will be a market, and a worthwhile one, too – a global niche made up of Richard Florida’s creative class. In the grotesque thought world of modern capitalism, Ello is a hangout for the winners, a virtual Brooklyn.
Perhaps it has to be this way. Perhaps social media sites will always be private properties. After all, in the words of everyone’s favourite capitalist, Gordon Gecko, “greed clarifies, cuts through”. Maybe the Delaware-incorporated, venture capital funded imitation of the thing will always win out over the thing itself.
Efforts to create networks that are controlled by their users, like Diaspora, haven’t achieved anything like the buzz that Ello and their publicists have generated in the last few weeks. And here the contrast with earlier eras is striking. Republicans, socialists, and anarchists were all enthusiastic adopters of the new media of the time – pamphlets and cheap books in the 18th century, newspapers in the 19th.
Still, I can’t help hoping that somewhere out there, among the thousands who took part in Occupy, maybe, there are people designing networks in which the members are the owners. If our lives are to be led online, and if we want to control our lives, then we need to control the spaces where we meet, and work and play – the spaces that we collectively create. Anything else is just another needle, nosing around for a vein.
Hype, in other words. Clever hype in this case, artisanal hype, hype that cuts through.
Dan Hind is an author and publisher. His most recent book is The Magic Kingdom: Property, Monarchy and the Maximum Republic. He is still waiting for his Ello invite.