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

Robert W. Gehl lists at robertwgehl.org
Mon Sep 29 21:06:52 CEST 2014

Hello, all!

Michael, thank you for asking me to discuss Ello via the WebCultures
list. I'm quite interested in Ello because I am fascinated by
alternatives to mainstream social media sites such as Facebook, Google,
and Twitter. Like many on the list, I'm new to Ello, so I will try to
frame it in terms of "social media alternatives".

* "What would it take for a social network site to deliver on a
statement like ‘You are not a product’?"

I find myself of two minds about Ello. On the one hand, Ello's accepting
venture capital and its strategically ambiguous terms that discuss
sharing data with third parties gives me that "here we go again"
feeling: Here's a new site that promises to deliver us from the old ones
by not being evil and respecting us. All we have to do is the work of
using it, making connections, being friends, writing posts, and
contributing media. Half of me thinks it's inevitable Ello will
eventually succumb to informational capitalism in some form, exploiting
all the good-faith work people put into it, mired as it is in Silicon
Valley. Perhaps Ello won't engage in behavioral marketing, but then
again, perhaps it will innovate a new method to deliver our desires and
fears to the marketers who have essentially turned the Internet into a
mass medium. The line "you are not a product" reminds me of the Bill
Hicks routine about marketing (I won't repeat it; I can't do it justice.
Moreover, it's not "safe for work" as it were, but here's a YouTube
link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDW_Hj2K0wo). In other words, as
Hicks might say, they're going for that anti-marketing market.

But I also am an optimist. In my book, I argue that the critical way
forward from the advertising-drenched, surveillance capitalism of
mainstream social media can be found in reverse engineering. That is, a
reverse engineer doesn't simply throw away a technology if she finds it
to be lacking in some way; instead she takes it apart, critically
considering what is positive about it and what should be removed, and
then uses that knowledge to build an alternative. Ello could be said to
be doing this, trying to offer social networking as we've come to
understand it while improving on the genre. Objects that are reverse
engineered will always bear a relation to the old. Ello recapitulates
much of what we know about social media -- its organizing principle is
individuals, it features a mix of "friending" and "following." But it is
also promising something Facebook does not: pseudonyms, an
anti-advertising stance, a minimalist aesthetic that is somewhat
redolent of Facebook before the IPO.

My two minds appear in my book, where I spend most of my words
critiquing social media, but then I end by saying we ought to support
social media alternatives (rather than completely abandon social media).
So I would say that, if you want to use Ello, do so. Experiment. At this
point, it simply cannot be worse than Facebook.

But it is not ideal. The ideal that many social media critics and
activists seem to agree on involves decentralization, open source
architecture, and encryption. That is, the holy grail of social media
alternatives appears to be a system that is far more under the user's
control, living on the user's computer or on a server the user controls
(or at least trusts), and would allow for private communication. Such
systems would be transparent in how they're governed (i.e.,
sousveillant) and yet would allow users to hide from the surveillance of
powerful entities. They would enable new forms of organization that blur
the lines between coder, developer, designer, and user. I talk about
efforts to do this in my book -- and how hard it is to implement this
ideal -- and I continue to study them in my current work, hoping to
further theorize what "alternative social media" might look like.

But there's a deeper sense to this question about the slogan "You are
not a product." Can we even *do* social networking without becoming a
"product"? Social networking on the Web appears to be wholly about us
producing ourselves -- for our friends, families, audiences, employers.
Along the way, in order to function, social networking sites -- even
decentralized ones -- must store the data produced in rationalized
archives and transmit it to us and those we share it with. This is why
it is so attractive to marketers who lust to know our interests,
desires, fears, and so on. Can a system exist in which we do not become
products? I think that is not just a question of Ello -- it's a question
of our political economy and how it is overdetermined with culture and
subjectivity. But if we are to address this question at the level of
social media rather than political economy, we need space to experiment
with identities that are not "products" -- citizens, activists,
tricksters, perhaps.

* "Although it is early days, what do you see as the promises and perils
of Ello and the excitement around it?"

I will start with perils and sum them up in a word: Diaspora. I am
surprised when I hear people ask, "What happened to Diaspora?" or "Why
did Diaspora fail?" In a sense, Diaspora did not fail. In fact, it's
alive and well with active users and "pods." However, Diaspora "failed"
to live up to the hype that was dumped on it when it was labeled in the
NY Times and other places a "Facebook Killer." The same is happening to
Ello, which is very early in its development. If this narrative holds,
if Ello fails to "kill" Facebook, then it will fail no matter how
successful it is. (Interestingly, Diaspora also sought VC funding via Y
Combinator before becoming a "community project").

A second peril is that, just as Facebook and Twitter have before, Ello
will gain a large user base and then innovate ways to monetize them
without having the users see it as such. Ello has hamstrung itself with
this "ad-free" model but, let's face it, marketers are only just
starting to figure out how to turn the Web into a capitalist playground.
Perhaps Ello will help realize the "data locker" system and we can sell
our data to bidders, rather than give it away for free. Perhaps it will
do a "shareholder" model as Zurker has and equate money with votes.

Because I am an optimist, however, I will end on promises. The promise
of Ello and social media alternatives is that designers, coders, and
users recognize the severe problems of Facebook, Twitter, and Google,
and they seek better ways. If alternatives can fuse the ease-of-use of
Twitter with anti-commercial, anti-surveillance structures, -- that is,
if they can bring down the "opportunity cost" of trying a new and better
system -- then perhaps we can experiment more with new forms. It took me
about 5 minutes to sign up for Ello and make a friend. Let's say I don't
like Ello; I could move on to the next alternative, migrating until I
find one that meets my politics, one that affords new subjectivities or
possibilities, or one with a crowd I want to be a part of. If we have
multiple systems that are simple like that, more experiments could
happen, and perhaps we could move past Facebook and this creeping
centralization of the Web.

- Rob

Robert W. Gehl
Assistant Professor, Department of Communication
Affiliated Faculty, University Writing Program
The University of Utah
www.robertwgehl.org | @robertwgehl
Sent from our OS on our Internet

Please read my book: Reverse Engineering Social Media

On 09/29/2014 06:39 AM, Michael Stevenson wrote:
> 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!
> -Michael
> [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
> _______________________________________________
> WebCultures mailing list
> WebCultures at listcultures.org
> http://listcultures.org/mailman/listinfo/webcultures_listcultures.org

More information about the WebCultures mailing list