What Does Ethical Social Networking Software Look Like?
I have written this article because I literally could not write any other. I was, in fact, in the middle of several useful articles which I could have completed and posted for my Message deadline, but I failed to get any of them done. I stalled, I choked. I got obsessed with something, it was one of those weeks. I haven’t been able to concentrate this week — because I’m on a new social network called Ello. And Ello hacked my brain.
Ello is pretty and monospaced. It feels to me like a combination of Twitter and the old, feature-spare version of Live Journal. It has a hipster chic to it that does not stand out from tech’s usual suspects, though it’s a look and feel that draws me a bit, being from the days of EFnet and terminal clients and hand chiseled BBS software. It is also, as Anil Dash has pointed out, very white and fairly male.
What makes Ello so interesting, despite all of these things that are probably not as interesting for other people as they are for me, is a non-feature. Ello is an anti-pattern of what social networking has become: it’s meant to be advertising free, with the accompanying freedom from pervasive tracking and surveillance. This is a Big Deal for a lot of people right now, because the software companies that support our social lives have become so evil and pervasive and controlling in recent years.
And this is because those companies make tons of money acting this way. We hate it, but we all live with it, and by all I mean somewhere in the neighborhood of two billion people worldwide. This is a thing that did not exist at all until the closing moments of the 20th century.
How We Got Here
Social networking is the closest thing we’ve invented to a “snow crash” in the Neal Stephenson sense. A snow crash was something you downloaded off Stephenson’s 80s version of an advanced net, and viewing it took down not only your computer terminal, but your mind. It was a virus that affected both the OS and the CNS.
Social networking software latches onto the fact that humans are incredibly specialized to pay attention to each other. We get nearly every need we have as an organism out of a web of attention created with other humans. Our ideas of nightmares often involve being trapped far from other people. Solitary confinement is one of the most torturous punishments we’ve ever invented. Exile has often been considered worse than death. We have evolved specialized brain functions for facial processing and language acquisition. We are defined, explicitly and implicitly, in terms of each other. We are fathers and sisters and employees and citizens and members. This effect is biological and cultural, and they reinforce each other fiercely. The hyper-sociality of humanity is both genetic and epigenetic, and it runs through everything we do.
Networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and their antecedents, have infected our computers and phones, usually pulling out our contacts and behaviors and traveling like social worms. They also crash the bit of our CNS that manages attention. They slow us and our machines down tremendously, and we often treat them like drugs. But they also give us astounding powers and deep pleasure. We are coordinating and connecting beyond anything we’ve ever done before, fulfilling a human social appetite that feeds on itself. Someone who needs money in Paris, TX, health information in Montero, Bolivia, or loving support in Lawdar, Yemen, can get these things in seconds from another person in Perth, Australia. In theory that’s just the internet, but in practice, those interactions are contained within the software systems that allow people to socialize. Right now the three biggest places on the net to socialize are Facebook, Twitter, and the Chinese network Qzone. None of these are socially or politically acceptable companies.
Sociality has always lived in tension with control. Organizing the social lives of people leads to both governments and their continual overthrows. People with power, status, and money want other people organized, but usually in ways that are subordinate to their wealth and station. The people being so organized often resent the hell out of the guys in charge. Social networking software is no different — Facebook users love the access Facebook gives them to each other, but often hate the control it has over their lives. I hate it so much I refuse the substantial benefits of Facebook to escape its influence as best I can, even though I know building a Facebook following for my work would likely result in a better financial life for me. Not many have made this choice, and if it was the only way I could talk to my family, I’m not sure I could really stay away.
Social networks are like languages — they are only worthwhile when they are broadly adopted. This makes an incredibly compelling case for user tracking and advertising, since success as a broad network makes the most sense by giving network access away and then selling the people to companies. This is a hard model to escape.
We ended up here because the major social networks are large, VC-funded companies that are also of interest to national governments. Beginning with the problem of VCs (venture capitalists) — they are a much worse deal than most people realize. They look like someone giving you vast amounts of money and solving your immediate problems, but like most vast amounts of money, there are dangerous strings attached. They own you, even if it doesn’t feel that way at first. VCs take a distant kind of control when they fund a company. That control amounts to this: you have to make stratospheric amounts of money, or you have to die. You can’t be moderately successful, you can’t build a sustainable business over time. Those goals, while perfectly good ways to live, do nothing for your investors. You can be hyper-rich, or a dead tax write-off, and nothing in-between.
Most of the time the only way to make the massive returns VCs like is to charge companies or governments. These are the only entities in our society rich enough to consistently and quickly feed the VC mouths. The only thing a social network can sell to companies are its users. (There are more patient consumer plays out there with VC money, but not for fucking social networks, I promise.) When the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter signed up for that money, they signed away any chance of building privacy for their users. There is another more subtle but perhaps as insidious VC influence. The VC world is incredibly white and male supremacist. Most VCs firms are simply not going to fund companies that aren’t both fronted by and focused on white men. Even a diverse team will be pressured by the people they’ve taken money from to be services for people like the VCs themselves. Women might be a bit tolerated, but the only relationship that will be tolerated by the money men with communities of color is one that extracts value and labor out of them. The VCs make deals for existing structures of power and money as much as their explicitly colonialist fore-bearers did, and that’s what you sign on for when you sign on for VC funding.
Ello has not, to my knowledge, made this infernal bargain yet, and that is an unwavering requirement for them to fulfill their stated anti-pattern, as well as the other anti-patterns of customer service and community support I hope they develop. But Ello has to charge someone, somewhere, and the obvious source of money is its users. Many are currently clamoring to pay, which is useful. But it’s too early — with online services people need to know exactly what they’re paying for before they put down money, and Ello is still in that delightful phase of figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up. They are still figuring out what a block will do, how to handle notifications, how they feel about nipples and beheadings — the kind of questions all young networks face these days. It’s probably obvious that I like Ello.
I doubt they understand quite yet the pressures they will face with success. I posted this yesterday:
Ello, there’s a lot coming your way, if you do well. The big social networks will compete with you, try to crush you. Users will badger and blame you. Press will misquote, villainize, and oversell you. Governments will threaten and pressure you. Mysterious forces will DDoS you and hunt your users’ data. Well-meaning(ish) assholes will announce your security flaws in public. Enraged people will publicly claim you’re a CIA, NSA, or an FBI front company. Moles will try to work for you. Downtime will threaten you. Actual mentally ill people will threaten you. Toxic communities will blame you for their problems. Media will blame you for your toxic communities. The code won’t scale. The revenue model won’t be quite right. The hosting will be problematic. People will blame you for bigotry, hate, and even aiding human rights abusers and criminals.
…and that’s just what happens if people love you.
The Ello folk have told me they’re not competing with Facebook, but Facebook is competing with them. Facebook is literally competing with everything else you might want to do online, and with all the AFK time they can push into as well. Big social networks seek an impossible level of total user engagement. The more they have you, and the more they have on you, the more they can feed their demons.
And they have more demons than their VCs (and later shareholders). Because social networking is so powerful, all social networks attract the attention of governments, many of which are abusive. Eventually all social network companies have to answer to men with guns.
Ello hasn’t said a word yet how they will handle domestic and international law enforcement. Will they turn over user data on a simple subpoena? Will they let their users fight subpoenas? What kind of legal help do they have? Will they cooperate with requests to suppress content or turn over identifying data at the behest of Turkey, Egypt, the UK, Russia, etc? If they do, are they prepared to see their users imprisoned or tortured because of their cooperation? If they don’t, are they prepared to be blocked? Are they prepared to warn their employees not to travel to countries where trumped up criminal charges could result in their employees being taken as a kind of judicial hostage to force Ello to comply with the demands of that abusive government?
These questions, and even more, are the price of Ello being a success, an open tool of change and empowerment. The best way out of them, in the end, is for Ello to turn back into what we did before big companies ran our social lives — a protocol, something we can host ourselves and for each other, eventually. Something distributed, and therefore very hard to fuck with as a government or company. This is my long term hope, but it requires Ello to eventually become a service provider, to turn what they do into an unspecial thing and be one of many making a living the same way. To be a utility, a commodity. But how wonderful it would be for free expression online to finally be unspecial, as unspecial as the air we breathe.
I have suggested that Ello charge customers. I have suggested differential pricing based on regional income. I have pointed them at people to talk to about their content policy, and a few suggestions about the UI. I will continue to suggest things. I will highlight other people’s suggestions. I am probably right about some things, and dead wrong on others. It’s very early days, but I hope Ello can be cool, at least for a while. And when Ello fails, I will look for the next thing. Yes, everything sucks eventually, but we’re all going to plunge into the sun eventually too, so that doesn’t seem worth dwelling on.
Top gif created by @cacheflowe, a developer with Ello.co.