This week Ello launched with some buzz and strongly worded marketing. They reject ads and privacy-invading business models. I was intrigued, received an invite, and signed up. I quickly became disappointed, because I’ve been here before.
App.net launched a couple years ago, with similar attitudes regarding privacy, ads, and a much clearer funding model. People paid $50 to sign up, largely to avoid the compromised situation we find on Twitter and Facebook. However, despite a revenue stream, the business couldn’t afford to continue in the same form and has been put in maintenance mode.1 Ello’s revenue model is less clear to their end users. They don’t currently ask for money because they are venture backed. They do say they plan on charging their users for premium features at some point in the future. This sounds a lot like “we’ll figure out how to make money once we’re big”, which has been the philosophy of every ad-backed startup we’ve seen. Maybe they’re sincere right now, but at some point investments have to be repaid and they will have to make choices that their users may not like. Andy Baio wrote a great post, on Ello, detailing some of these issues.
So what’s the way forward for those who like microblogging and the social web? Decentralization. I created my Snippets feed, partly as a response to these exact concerns. The reason I write on my own blog instead of Medium is the same reason my social posts originate from my snippets feed and do not begin on Twitter, ADN, or Facebook. I control my own site and it will remain in my power after all these properties have died or changed their focus, chasing whatever they need to please their investors. Owning a URL is awesome, and is not restricted to people with VC funding. I can change the technology I use, the server that URL points to, or what I want the site to be. This is what’s cool about the open web, not being subject to balkanized companies who build their own enclaves.
Decentralization is hard, and may never have the mass embrace that Twitter and Facebook have gained. The learning curve to self-host is orders of magnitude more difficult than downloading an app and signing up with a username and password. However, it’s always been that way on the web, and tools for making this kind of thing easier will come. People who want to control their own destiny have always had to get in the weeds a bit, but that’s where the most vibrant, interesting things are happening. It’s where I want to be.