24th February 2024 10:40 am
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Is Ello the answer to Facebook privacy concerns, or is there another Path?

If you don’t know by now, there is a new social network that promises to free you from Facebook’s shackles. It is called Ello and it is currently an invitation-only beta release. Its manifesto is fairly self-explanatory:

Your social network is owned by advertisers.

Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.

You are not a product.

Ello is the latest attempt to forge a social network compelling enough to lure Facebook’s entrenched masses. It is also the latest in a line of social services which seem to be looking for a solution to problems that Facebook users aren’t interested enough in to address with their digital feet: Facebook’s intricate use of its users’ personal information to keep the social engine running. As I wrote a few months ago in my post titled “Path is the better personal network you’ve been waiting for”:

We essentially pay for our Facebook access using our personal information (demographics, preferences and connections) which Facebook uses to personalise ads we are inundated with in Facebook. That works better if we spend more time using Facebook and, in the process, giving Facebook more signals about which ads to present is with and which friends to associate with brands so we’d be more likely to click on pages and ads.

A popular notion about Facebook is that you are the product when you use it, because your Facebook use refines the Facebook ad sales model and keeps you hooked so you keep clicking, sharing and even buying. Facebook’s customers are its advertisers, and its selling you (European consumers recently pujt the value of their Facebook data at around R3 000 a head). Ello’s pitch is premised largely on the idea that Ello will not sell your data and use it to customise ads to present to you. Ello’s privacy policy doesn’t guarantee that none of your data will be shared (it specifically says that your data will be shared in certain circumstances) or that Ello is a private social network where you can share in relative obscurity. If anything, this section of Ello’s privacy policy sets the stage for your Ello use:

Ello is a Public Network

Ello is a platform built for posting and sharing public content. You should assume that anything you post on Ello other than private messages will be accessed by others.

Search engines will be able to see the content you post. Content you post may be copied, shared, or re-posted on Ello and on other parts of the internet in ways that you and we cannot control.

We have made it easy for you to delete posted content from your personal account, and also to delete your account altogether (there’s a link to do so on your personal settings page).

However, we may store backups of your content on our servers, even after it is deleted or after you delete your account.

Furthermore, deleting your account or specific content doesn’t mean that your content hasn’t been copied or shared on Ello, and on other parts of the internet by people or services that have nothing to do with Ello.

We strongly suggest that you consider this when deciding what to post and what not to post on Ello (or anywhere on the Internet, for that matter). Please post responsibly!

At a fairly high level, Ello seems to be shaping up to be a minimalist Facebook without the ads (and, for the time being, a revenue model to keep the service running). It is not designed to be private by default and, as the privacy policy cautions, you really need to think carefully about what you share on Ello because it may very well be publicly accessible.

The hype around Ello reminds me of another social network that promised relief from Facebook’s unblinking gaze: Path. Like Ello, Path doesn’t use personal data to inform ads on its network. Path has no ads and, instead, relies on paid premium features to generate revenue to fund its operations. Unlike Ello, Path is private by design. If you are looking for a social network which is not being indexed by search engines and where you can share your personal stuff with a select group of friends with meaningful control over who can see your stuff, then Path is your better bet.

Ello isn’t really solving a problem that hasn’t been solved. Path is a far better bet for privacy conscious users. The real challenge isn’t finding an alternative to Facebook, it is persuading enough people to switch to the Facebook alternative to make the alternative a viable social network. Ello may be a far superior experience (I don’t have my invitation yet so I don’t have first-hand experience with Ello) but it will fail to gain enough traction to make a dent in Facebook’s userbase for one simple reason: everyone is using Facebook and it works well for them.

Facebook’s privacy challenges are not foremost in enough of its users’ minds to be a strong enough force for change. The people who are deeply concerned about Facebook’s data use practices and are desperate for other ways to share their lives privately have left Facebook and are using alternatives. Everyone else accepts that Facebook is less than ideal from a privacy perspective but sticks with it because all the other people they want to share with are using Facebook too. Put another way: Facebook has nailed the network effect.

The end result is this:

Sure, Path’s utility to you is still dependent on whether the people you most want to connect with are Path users and that is likely to be the reason why most people will stick with Facebook with its overbearing ads and changing publicity settings.

Just replace “Path” with “Ello”.

Paul Jacobson is a digital risk and privacy specialist. His focus areas are digital risk assessment and gap analysis as well as privacy and data processing risks. You can also find him on Twitter at @pauljacobson or on webtechlaw.com.

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