Ello Says You're Not a Product, But You Are

The new social-media site's manifesto rails against turning customers into units, but it is just doing the same thing differently.

Ello Screenshot
This week, the social-networking site Ello exploded onto the scene. The site is slowly letting new users in, and in declarations that sound eerily familiar, some are calling it “the Facebook killer.” Whether people will truly flock to Ello from Facebook, or whether it will go the route of Google+ and other Facebook killers before it, remains to be seen. But it’s worth looking at the way Ello launched, and in particular its central claim.
Ello went for the manifesto launch—the kind that proclaims a certain world view, and literally asks its prospective users to Agree or Disagree with that world view. In Ello’s case, their claim is simple: “You are not a product,” they say. Here’s the full manifesto:

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.

It’s pretty clear that Ello is firing shots at Facebook—the social site that makes its money by treating its users as the product. The idea that us users are the product for a site like Facebook isn’t new. Media analysts declared last year that Graph Seach confirmed it, but all the way back in 2010 Bruce Schneier said “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not—you’re the product. Its customers are the advertisers.”
Ello claims that on its site, that’s no longer the case. They’re tapping into not just a general feeling of vague discomfort surrounding Facebook as a place, but also the long-bubbling resentment about Facebook’s revenue generating practices. A site that can be Facebook without being Facebook is something people are clearly hungry for.
But here’s the thing about Ello’s manifesto—something that Ian Aleksander Adams, the director of information architecture and UI/UX at Hedvig Inc. an infrastructure startup, pointed out to me (on Facebook, of course): Ello doesn’t have to be storing and selling your information for you to be the product.
Adams, who also volunteers as community architect at the non-profit Internet Archive, said that we tend to think of “being a product” as being something that somebody can sell. In Facebook terms, that means being a human with interests and desires that companies can use to better understand how to sell you things. But there are lots of ways you can be the product of a website without them selling your data to advertisers, Adams notes.
The fact that you, the user, even exist and use their site makes you a product. Ello already has some amount of seed funding from VCs, which means it will need to return to them with something in hand if it wants more. And when it does, or when it is eventually bought by a larger company, you are part of that transaction—a key line in the sales pitch. Your existence on that site is a unit of currency, and it’s a unit that Ello is selling to whoever will give them money for it.
And even if Ello fails to make money, if it isn’t able to successfully execute on the freemium model it has talked about (and many sites don’t), you are still currency in the form of promotion for Ello’s founders. You’re a line on their resume that gets them that next job, or that next seed money for that next startup: Founder, Ello, 200,000 users (hey look, that’s you!).
“If Ello was serious about their 'manifesto' they'd be non-profit,” Adams told me. But Ello’s founders have to sell something, whether it’s to VCs or companies. And that something is always going to be you.
You might decide that being that kind of currency—the kind that promotes investment, hiring and promotion of this companies and these people—is fine with you. It might be preferable to the Facebook model of tracking your every move and selling that information to advertisers. But you are still the product.
Being the product isn't inherently a bad thing, either. In many cases, users are willing to be the product in exchange for some service they want, and that's totally fine. The premise that turning your users into a product as inherently evil (which is what Ello's manifesto is arguing) ignores the reality of what people are comfortable with. Ello's manifesto seems to miss what the true issues with Facebook are. Building the anti-Facebook social network doesn't necessarily have to mean building a social network that claims to do the opposite of everything Facebook does.
Relatedly, Ello has already heard some criticism for things that, some feel, are already violating their own ethos in spirit at least. In their manifesto, they declare that it would not be selling ads of any kind. "We also think ads are tacky, that they insult our intelligence and that we're better without them," the site says.
So ads are forbidden—but brand pages aren’t, apparently. Ello founder Paul Budnitz has a brand page for his bicycle company on Ello, as Ben Breier pointed out in this post on Medium. The prestige-speaker makers Sonos have one, too.
Ello promises no ads, and that it won’t treat you like a product. We’ll see about ads. But as long as it remains for-profit, it will almost certainly treat you something like a product—just in a way you're not used to.