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

Michael Stevenson michael at webcultures.org
Tue Sep 30 21:21:05 CEST 2014

Hi Rob, hi all, 

Your two minds seem to be one with the general reaction to Ello, which has whiplashed between enthusiasm and cynicism the past few days. 

Enthusiastic responses I have read go beyond Ello’s lack of advertising and praise the site’s design more generally. As Quinn Norton notes, it allows for the liveliness we’ve come to expect of social media (think Twitter and Facebook timelines), while the lack of clutter means longer pieces also seem like they belong [1]. Enthusiasm about Ello’s form is perhaps nostalgic: Norton compares it to early LiveJournal, and I doubt it will be long before someone equates Ello with ‘what the web was meant to be.’ 

Meanwhile, beyond the main criticisms (i.e. that Ello has taken VC money and will eventually find ways to sell user data to advertisers), some of the backlash is notable for being conservative. For example, Ian Bogost quickly responded to the hype by saying “the problem with social media isn't just the ads/data gathering part. It's also the social media part,” presumably taking aim at how these platforms encourage banal and superficial uses [2]. 

What seems missing from the conversation is an understanding of how closely the surveillance and advertising apparatus is tied to social media form, something that you discuss throughout your book and in particular in a chapter on the relationship between advertising standards and social media conventions. Could you talk a little about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which social media companies (through their interfaces and policies) encourage uses that benefit their ability to sell more advertising? And on the other side, how is this interplay between business model and form addressed in the alternative social media projects you study? Are alternative social media projects built primarily on a desire to tackle the “ads/data gathering part,” or are they also looking to solve “the social media part,” in the sense of providing a higher-quality experience (however this is defined)?

[1] https://medium.com/message/what-does-ethical-social-networking-software-look-like-315373c898ed
[2] https://www.facebook.com/ibogost/posts/10152775683321979

On Sep 29, 2014, at 9:06 PM, Robert W. Gehl <lists at robertwgehl.org> wrote:

> 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
> http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2275_reg.html
> 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
> _______________________________________________
> WebCultures mailing list
> WebCultures at listcultures.org
> http://listcultures.org/mailman/listinfo/webcultures_listcultures.org

More information about the WebCultures mailing list