Like everyone else last week I started hearing about a new social network called Ello. The draw of this new social network was that it didn't serve ads and had a “minimal” user interface. And, like everyone else, I begged my friends with for an invite email. I received one, started an account and within minutes I disappointed, like everyone else.
What happened? Why was there so much hype? What is the great, big unmet need that drew so many people to seek an alternative to Facebook? And why, once there, did people find this promising new site so lacking? There are a few reasons.
First, when it comes to social networks (and other Internet services) we can't have it both ways: we can't have quality services for free. You either pay by having your data sold to third parties (namely ad exchanges) or you pay with a subscription. To quote the adage, “If you're not paying for the service, then you're the commodity being sold.”
Second, quality thrives when there's competition. If we (doubtably) flee from Facebook to Ello (as we did from MySpace), Ello will be just another monopoly. The unique problem with social networks is that in order for them to work, everyone needs to be on the same network. As a result, social networks are more prone to monopolies than other Internet services, including email and even search.
The conceptual answer to this problem is the Distributed Social Network. At this point, Distributed Social Networks are still in the zygote stage. They have yet to emerge in any meaningful way and there are many challenges, technological and economic, to making it a reality. If it were to emerge, however, it could solve many of the problems that take power away from users of social networks.
Distributed social networks could best be explained by the following scenario: It's the year 9000 and in this glorious future one could be on one of any number of social networks and still be able to network and communicate with anybody on any other social network. For example, if Bob was on Facebook, he could still connect with and post on Jill's Ello timeline. Jill, in turn, could share Bob's post with Terri on Google+. Bob could then like Jill's post on Terri's wall. All of this could be done from each person's respective accounts, all without the need for a separate accounts.
This sounds ambitious, but there is precident: consumer email in the 1980's. During this time, consumers mostly got online via commercial networks like CompuServe, GEnie, and Prodigy. Each of these services had their own email protocols that were incompatible with each other. So, if you were on CompuServe and your friend was on GEnie, you couldn't email back and forth. It was only after the early 90's when the Internet was opened to the public that these services set their systems to the universal email protocol that we take for granted today. We need to look at this precident for breaking the walled-garden model for current social networks.
Assuming that there was a widespread Distributed Social Networking protocol, it still doesn't take care of the economic model behind current social networks. What if, five years from now, we all were on distributed social networks that still mined our personal information? The truth is that distributed social networks are not, by themselves, a panacea. But they could provide the potential for more options.
App.net tried to bring a premium model for social networks. For a small subscription fee, you saw no ads and your data wasn't provided to third parties. It has yet to take off. Two possible reasons:
- The market hasn't seen the value of greater privacy controls. So your network consisted only of a small niche of privacy wonks.
- The prospect of yet another silo for your posts isn't appealing.
With Distributed Social Networking, one could subscribe to App.Net and still connect with Uncle Ralph on Facebook who doesn't care that it mines his data. With this possibility, privacy-minded premium social networks might become a sustainable business model.
It's hard to predict the future, but I believe Ello is a flash in the pan. If it continues to grow, it will need to make revenue. And they can only do it one of two ways: ads or a subscription model. Both of those have the potential to make its already tentative userbase leave in droves.
The only true successor I see to Facebook is a Distributed Social Network protocol. I acknowledge it may only remain a pipe dream, but if the frenzy over Diaspora a few years ago was any indication (or the current hype over Ello), there is huge demand for choice and user-control for social networks. The Economist has written about the promise of Distributed Social Networks no less than 3 times since 2008.
When someone tells you that a new social network is the next big thing, keep the idea of Distributed Social Networks in mind. In all likelihood, if it's just another walled-garden, it probably isn't.