Once upon a time, the biggest, most successful social network in the whole entire world had 1.3 billion monthly active users. Its founders lived very happy lives, until one day a much smaller, innovative network came along, daring to challenge the long-established ruler. An outcry went through the nation which was quick to forecast its predecessor’s death.
In case you hadn’t guessed I’m talking about Facebook (the most successful social network in the whole entire world) and the new social network on the block, Ello.
Despite what most articles would like you to believe, this upheaval doesn’t portray the imminent death of Facebook, but Ello is challenging the social world as marketers and consumers know it.
A bold rebel arises
Let’s recap; Ello launched back in March but has only recently become a talking point, mostly due to Facebook’s strict enforcement of its real name policy. Now Ello, an invite-only network, is becoming increasingly popular, experiencing 45,000 membership requests per hour. In terms of functionality Ello is quite similar to its siblings, with the stark differences of anonymising profile pictures, the absence of ads (one of the reasons it portrays itself as the anti-Facebook) and this bold statement:
Ello’s argument is that there is a lack of transparency, an objectification of the consumer and an anonymity in relationships between advertisers and consumers apparent in today’s world of digital consumerism, and seeks to redress this by empowering the consumer.
I’m not saying Ello is barking up the wrong tree, considering the foreseeable demand for anonymous social media, but they are making great promises to their audience which they might not be able to keep. After all, how is Ello planning to be sustainable? No ads is all well and good, but that’s also how Facebook, Twitter and Instagram began many years ago. Surely the money that’s coming in from users paying for extra features won’t suffice to carry the financial burden that comes with expansion as a service gains popularity. In my eyes, Ello is striving for the impossible. Even apart from commercial sustainability, I honestly wonder if the network’s simplicity can retain an audience that is used to highly engaging and versatile online experiences on other social networks.
Ello’s appeal to the user is “You are not a product”. Naturally, consumers shouldn’t be perceived as a product, they’re human beings with their own needs, fears and beliefs. We are individuals that expect to be treated as such. But here’s the catch 22; if marketers are not collecting data from their audience, how can they have relevant and personalised conversations and build genuine relationships with their customers, treating them as the individuals they are? Numerous articles and studies suggest that many people are disgruntled by irrelevant messages from brands and are willing to share some of their data in return for interesting offers and relevant information.
Barely anything is free nowadays and we all pay for the products and services we use in one way or another, if not with data then with money. Though the general public might not have in-depth understanding of the kind of data they give to marketers, the majority are, at least to a certain point, very well aware that their online presence is being tracked and used by companies. The outcry about Facebook’s emotion experiment earlier this year only evoked such harsh criticism because the social giant is powerful and always in the centre of attention. Barely anyone, however, bats an eye over the uncountable number of research papers and dissertations that manipulate and analyse users’ behaviours on social networks. It should also be mentioned that the collected data is not only used for advertising purposes. Insights into users’ behaviours and preferences allow the platforms themselves to improve their services, introduce new features and create a better overall experience.
And the moral of the story?
Coming back to Ello, you might wonder what the end of the story is. Well, I can’t give you a happy ending (what would that look like anyway?). The end of the story remains to be seen, but the moral of the story so far is: Marketers are always walking a thin line between intrusive manipulation and responsible handling of consumer data and predictive analytics.
Facebook’s recent actions and Ello’s sudden success raise questions about anonymity, transparency and equality between the senders and receivers of marketed messaging. Both advertisers and consumers benefit from data mining, but it’s up to companies to educate their audiences and to handle the data they are given with care and responsibility. And as Tom Fishburne put it: “Ello may be anti-advertising, but it is not anti-brand.”