Ello and the Real Fight for Privacy

Ello, the new social media platform that been hailed as the holy grail of Facebook alternatives, has just launched, and it’s already being heavily critiqued by Ello users themselves.

It seems that Ello has a privacy problem, but not it’s not the kind you might think. The site promises users that they will never mine user data or allow for advertising (targeted or otherwise). But as many users have pointed out, privacy is multifaceted. It’s not simply protection from Ello that is at issue–it’s also protection from each other. Even a supposedly democratic user base is ridden through with power issues, and social media doesn’t escape the issues of power, marginalization, discrimination and abuse that plague us in the ‘real world’.

 A different kind of privacy: protection for marginalized users

One of my first worries in reading the Ello manifesto and examining lists of tips and features was that there seemed to be no option for blocking another user. Any woman who has ever used OKCupid, Tumblr, or Twitter knows that the block button is not only useful, but absolutely crucial to being able to preserve emotional well being while still participating.

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 8.00.22 AM

Luckily, Ello is still in beta, and still flexible.Within the last three days Ello has added a block and mute feature. It’s heartening that they’re making privacy issues a priority. Unfortunately, there’s still no option to hide your Ello account from general searches or from the public at large. Blocking and muting is an active choice on a person by person basis.

Why Nothing like Black Twitter is Possible on Ello

Beyond these privacy issues lie others. There is no way for marginalized groups to organize independently and separately within Ello itself. The design of Ello, which has nothing analogous to ‘liking’ or ‘retweeting’, no way to use hashtags, and no community pages, prevents a particular kind of group building. What’s understood to be good, clean design also might hamstring efforts at community building, unlike the visually messier but ultimately more flexible Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr. We can understand the social costs by comparing Ello to Twitter use in the black community. As Soraya McDonald notes in an article from the Washington Post, Black Twitter allows for social critique and community building on the site itself, a radical subversion of dominant trope through the satirization of hashtags (among many other gestures and tropes). In the absence of hashtags to organize posts, would such a community and set of even have developed on Twitter?

Homogeneity in the dev team and early adopters

Along with others, I’d argue that the very structure of Ello might preclude some of the changes we might want to see as members of marginalized groups. Despite the recent flight of LGBTQ users from Facebook to Ello, Ello’s dev team seems to be predominantly made up of white cis-males: developers, designers and coders who belong to an arts community in Boulder, CO.

Several users have called the team’s make-up into question. In a widely circulated critique, Ello user Nathan Jurgensen calls for the inclusion of  “social scientists” and others attuned to power in the Ello dev team, to allow for the development of features that are better attuned to the kinds of social inequalities and dynamics that a users face. However, Jurgensen does not explicitly call for including those of varying gender, sexual orientation, race, ability, class to be included in Ello’s core team. This leaves an important question open: are the social scientists still white males? Other Ello users have expressed broader concerns about the failure to include developers and designers of different race, class, gender, sexuality and ability.

Exchange between a user and an Ello dev team member, in the comments section of a recent critique of the cis-male, white, and heterocentric demographics of Ello itself.

Exchange between a user and an Ello dev team member, in the comments section of a recent critique of the cis-male, white, and heterocentric demographics of Ello itself

In the comments section of the post linked to above, the Ello team claims that its hard to find women and PoC to hire. In the same breath, they seem to claim that their team does care about diversity, and that any accusations to the contrary are ill-founded. I’d counter with the thought that until we see results and changes in features, assertions of the team’s diversity or love of diversity aren’t proof that they can implement changes that are relevant to a diverse community.

Beyond this, as popular blogger Anil Dash and others have pointed out, Ello’s userbase is still mostly white. RJ Metrics  has collected some statistics on user demographics, finding that only 37 percent of users so far are women.

It’s possible that the invite only system encourages exsting social networks irl to expand within themselves initially. As the creators of Ello explain in their FAQ/WTF section, Ello began as an initiative between them and their friends, and is still invitation only, though it’s expanded considerably. The demographics of early adoption matter, and an invitation only system unfortunately limits these demographics. If the initial user base is made up of white users centered in Boulder, Colorado, the stretch towards other communities is difficult. We tend to think of the internet as ahistorical and set apart from geography, but I wonder how the origins of Ello in Boulder (a relatively racially homogenous and hetero-homogenous area are) might have affected its dev team and user make-up.  Expansion into an LGBTQ community that is frustrated with Facebook might help to open the community up a little more, though the concerns about race remain. This is no longer the era of

Privacy Re-Considered

Thus far I’ve tried to show how the privacy issue that Ello has put on the table (protecting a user’s private data from Ello’s team) is somewhat of a red herring. There are other privacy issues that we ought to be worried about. They have to do with protecting users from each other and allowing users to organize into ‘private’ communities within the publicity of Ello itself.

Other new platforms do accommodate these two privacy concerns in their design For example, a forum like Diaspora allows users to choose who they share with from the get go. Diaspora is also open source software, allowing users to customize their experiences and accommodate their particular needs.

But Diaspora has barely gained steam. It’s possible that Diaspora will reach a critical mass and expand, but this seems unlikely as of now. It’s no accident that Ello has achieved such great publicity –a platform designed by mostly white , upper class, design enthusiasts has an advantage straight out the gate.

What then, can we even do? Right now it appears that the best hope for Ello is that the dev team will incorporate user feedback as the full platform rolls out and is beta tested over the next few months.

But there’s also a lesson about the future here: if we care about users at the margin of the mainstream, we must advocate for the incorporation of a diverse group of technologists from the very outset of development. The otherwise maligned forces of capitalist economy might be of use. As Trebor Scholz argues, if you’re not paying for the service, you’re the product. Can we use our value as products to get the attention of those in power and subvert the system? Andy Baio discovered that Ello is funded by a single VC firm. If VC funding were contingent on the inclusion of diverse developers or accountability to a diverse user base, a single VC firm might be able to create financial incentives for such an initiative. If we can figure out how to leverage funding to financially incentivize diversity in a development team and to publicize the resultant product, we might have a shot at moving closer to the utopian promise of the social media platform that is beautifully designed on every level.

Scholz, Trebor, ed. 2013. Digital Labor: The Internet As Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.

Works Cited

Andy Baio.

Soraya Nadia McDonald. “Black Twitter: A virtual community ready to hashtag out a response to cultural issues” http://www.washingtonpost.com. The Washington Post, 20 Jan 2014. Web. 5 Oct 2014.


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