[WebCultures] Before and after Ello: Q&A with Robert W. Gehl

Michael Stevenson michael at webcultures.org
Mon Sep 29 14:39:14 CEST 2014

Hi all,

I’m very happy that Robert W. Gehl has agreed to answer a few questions about Ello and alternative social media for the list. As opposed to some of the earlier Q&As, we’ll do this live and hopefully get some more conversations started. 

Rob is an an Assistant Professor in Communication at the University of Utah, and author of the book Reverse Engineering Social Media: Software, Culture, and Political Economy in New Media Capitalism (Temple University Press, 2014) [1]. The book combines key concepts from computer science and critical theory to analyze how social media operate, and provides a rich theoretical framework for understanding these platforms as engines of free labor. The book makes it crystal clear how, for example, Facebook’s product is not social interaction so much as information and eyeballs for advertisers, and how users are encouraged to go to work for social media platforms. It goes beyond criticism, though, to ask what an alternative to hegemonic social media could look like, and this focus on alternatives is also central to Rob’s current work.

Part of what makes Reverse Engineering valuable is its strong emphasis on viewing social media as an outcome of cultural and historical context, not least software engineering practices and the establishment of advertising standards for digital media in the 1990s and 2000s. Because of this, I’m sure that Rob will be able to help us to see the bigger picture around Ello.co, the social network site that bills itself as an alternative to Facebook and that went viral last week [2].

So here is the first question: 

Ello’s homepage tells its users “You are not a product,” and one can opt out of sharing usage data with the company (although sharing this data is set as a default). At first glance, this seems like a massive step in the right direction, since surviving without tailored advertising seems like a prerequisite for a non-exploitative social network site. At the same time, the site does collect information that could presumably be used down the road by advertisers, if not necessarily for ads on Ello itself. In particular, critics have pointed to a line in Ello’s privacy policy that says it could share information with ‘affiliated companies’ at some point in the future [3].

What would it take for a social network site to deliver on a statement like ‘You are not a product’? Although it is early days, what do you see as the promises and perils of Ello and the excitement around it? 

Thank you, Rob, for participating, and I look forward to reading your answers!


[1] See http://www.robertwgehl.org and http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2275_reg.html.
[2] Much has been written about Ello in the past few days, see for instance http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/ellos-anti-facebook-moment and https://medium.com/message/what-does-ethical-social-networking-software-look-like-315373c898ed; There are also good discussions about Ello going on on the AOIR list (http://listserv.aoir.org/listinfo.cgi/air-l-aoir.org) and Unlike-Us (http://listcultures.org/mailman/listinfo/unlike-us_listcultures.org).
[3] https://ello.co/wtf/post/privacy

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