There’s been a lot of noise about Ello in the last few days, triggered specifically by Facebook’s missteps on requiring real names but powered by a deep undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the social behemoth.
One Tool To Bind Them All
Facebook wants* to be not only the primary social network for the entire world but the primary method of accessing the Internet: if Amazon wants to be the Everything Store, Facebook wants to be the Everywhere Site. This motive makes a lot of sense, because if everyone uses Facebook then Facebook can deliver the attention of everyone to their customers, the advertisers**.
Where Facebook’s model breaks is that as they seek to deliver user attention to their customer’s advertising, they introduce barriers to communication between users. This reduces the value of Facebook to the users, making it more likely that they will look for other ways to keep in touch with their contacts.
What Facebook needed to do was to make themselves indispensable before they brought down the monetisation hammer, and they don’t quite seem to have managed that. They’re trying to balance the value their users get from the site against the inconvenience they need to inflict on them in order to deliver user attention, but even though so many people continue to use Facebook because of the social network it captures, that use is tainted by unhappiness that they feel forced to use something that doesn’t actually do what they want any more.
Poisoning the Well
What is Facebook doing wrong? With so many users, how could it fail?
Facebook is not the only manically agglomerative Internet corporation – Google is doing basically the same thing in terms of trying to deliver attention to the advertisers that actually pay the bills, but their business operates alongside the web rather than trying to replace it: Google provides services to its users that are still of value to those users. Many people are unhappy with Google in principle***, but Google’s services enable people to use the Internet more efficiently.
Facebook’s service is getting in the way.
The obvious comparison for me is with Twitter – Twitter is a firehose, if you choose it to be: an unmediated flood of information, which you filter by being selective in what you consume. Facebook mediates – it filters on your behalf, without your explicit input or approval – which means you don’t always see the things you would expect to see. Worse than that, it posts things into your timeline which you would never choose: sponsored links, invitations to play crummy games, likes and proxied posts. What you get in your stream is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unusable.
The immediacy of posts is what Twitter does very well****, and it is exactly where Facebook fails.
Facebook is not the only social tool, though. There are a number of options for users, depending on what it is they want to achieve. All of them have their problems, but all of them have their place.
The following are personal observations of tools I have used extensively. Other social tools are available.
- Facebook – good for keeping in touch with real-life friends. I have contacts there with friends from school I would not otherwise talk to, and with former colleagues and family members. But Facebook has really broken the front page stream: its curation makes it unusable, and the lack of any kind of content search means that finding a post you saw before (or even a reply you made to someone else’s post) is functionally impossible.
- Twitter – good for keeping real-time tabs on subjects and people. Less personal than Facebook but with less mediation so you can make direct contact more easily than in FB. I’ve already alluded to Twitter’s most pressing problem: dealing with the flood of information. There is also a risk that Twitter will move to exactly the auto-curation and proxy post model that makes Facebook so disliked.
- Google+ – part of the Google collective, so that is be a problem for some. G+ did some things exactly right out of the gate: the circles were brilliant and were only faintly echoed in Facebook, and the introduction of Twitter-esque hashtags helped a lot. But they missed a couple of tricks on search and filtering, and they could have recovered a lot of the ill will lost when Reader was killed by incorporating RSS feed ingest into their stream model. G+ isn’t the ghost town that many claim, but it’s about half as useful as it should actually be. Still, you can search for posts rather than just people and that counts for a lot.
There are a couple of collaborative tools I use in the day job which should really be measured as social network tools, but they are not really of general interest so I will omit them here.
Pinterest? Instagram? Snapchat? I don’t use those much, if at all, so I have few meaningful opinions on them.
Ello came to public awareness in the wake of Facebook’s misguided “real names” policy, although I wanted to look at it because I thought the idea of a more focussed tool that was only about social interaction rather than posting more crappy memes and manky games was attractive. As of this writing it is spare to point of unusability, but the features it has are pretty solid: it’s alpha-level features with beta-level stability, as one acquaintance put it, which is almost exactly the other way around from most tools like this (yes, Jive, I am looking at you).
It is simple, and it really does mostly work. I like it.
Will it become the next Facebook? I doubt it – I expect Ello to become one of a constellation of social tools which interoperate rather than becoming a dominant player – but I also think Ello will be genuinely useful when Facebook is a pile of faintly glowing blue dust.
After all of that, I still use Facebook and I don’t especially expect to stop.
Because of the people.
That’s the killer feature that Facebook has: the people on the tool that aren’t anywhere else. Until and unless we have a federated social landscape, that will be Facebook’s advantage to lose.
Although they seem to be working pretty hard at doing that.
My Facebook profile is friends-only because it’s a personal presence rather than a professional one.
[*] Facebook is a corporation without actual desires or motives, but it has behaviour so as a shorthand here I am going to impute motives based on the corporation’s actions.
[**] you knew this, didn’t you? You maybe a user, but you are not the customer. If you are not paying for the use of a service, then you are the product.
[***] I don’t mention privacy in this post, but this is where I would.
[****] at least for now.