Ello: some thoughts on why there isn’t much political discussion on our controversial new social network

elloIn the last week or so I have seen an amazing amount of energy devoted to burying Ello. Mind you, it hasn’t launched yet. Still in beta. These folks are trying to kill it before the doors officially open. What’s weird is the range of attacks I’m seeing. Business insiders patting it on the head and ‘splaining why, noble as it is, it just won’t work. (I can’t prove that these folks are pimping for Facebook, but their efforts have to be making Zuck happy.) Pro-privacy types saying it’s sold out before it gets started because the developers take venture capital money. Design junkies telling us how it’s the worse design experience since, well like ever. On and on and on and on.


I’m not here to tell you that it’s going to put Facebook out of business. I’m not here to tell you that owners won’t sell it to the highest bidder. I don’t know them, and while I don’t think that’s the plan, hey, most people have a price. Who knows for sure. I’m not here to tell you that it doesn’t have bugs. As I commented on one of these self-important blogs a few days ago, you do know what the term “beta” means, right?

Not gonna tell you any of that. But I do like Ello so far, and I do have a relatively informed opinion on the subject. I was one of the first people in. I have well over 4000 followers. I have let interacting on the site consume way too many hours over the past couple of weeks. And I have been thinking deeply about the network the whole time, in the way us critical thinkers are prone to doing.

That said, I have a few more thoughts, following on to the post from last week.

I noted before that I haven’t seen much in the way of political discussion, and I have been thinking more about why that might be. First off, I am not saying there is no discussion of politics. But in the circle I have seen, it’s very minimal. I have been stunned at how little I have seen, and on a couple occasions when I have upped something political myself I have been met by crickets chirping. Which is odd, since the crowd strikes me as being pretty progressive, in all likelihood.

Are there corners of Ello where a lot of political chatter is happening? Maybe. I haven’t seen it and can’t comment on what I haven’t seen.

Perhaps the critical element to consider here is that the design favors visual over textual at this point. If you scroll down the feed you might see photos, graphic art, snips of poetry, political comments, pictures of pets (although mercifully, it hasn’t turned into cat pics central yet), fiction, or A saying hi to B. It’s all mashed together and the eye is naturally going to be drawn toward the images. My big hits so far are my photos, and it isn’t close.

I also get some hits on my poetry, but only when I post screen shots of it. Ello’s text posting functionality is hinky still, so you can’t include the kinds of line breaks and indentations that my work freuqently employs. This fucks with my writing badly, so I started doing screen grabs of the poem in Word and posting the image – voila! So when people scroll their feeds, my poems stand out more than regular text, leading to more people investigating it.

This alone would make for an interesting paper in several academic fields, from design to lit to cognitive science.

The design and functionality may explain why there is less political discussion than we might expect. These posts and conversations are basic text, and in the current design text simply doesn’t grab the eye of a passerby, especially one grazing casually. Which means less interest, less response, and hence less incentive for those wanting to discuss these issues to keep trying.

Remember, Ello is a social net designed by designers. It has a visual cognitive bias built in. This is wonderful for some users, and maybe frustrating for others.

So there you go – a theory. Stay tuned.


  • You can do line breaks in Markdown, but it’s a bit annoying and Ello’s Markdown documentation is woeful. GitHub’s is better, but I don’t know if when Ello refers to theirs as Ellos Markdown it’s just branding or if they’re really just using a subset of the spec. If the latter then it might not be possible there.

  • Frank Balsinger

    Two thoughts, and as usual with me, semi-serious.

    1) Re: political, or any other prose content for that matter, might that do better as a link accompanied by an appropriate 500 px wide image? As you say, the image catches the eye. Maybe a linked hed, maybe a lede does the rest. I tried that approach once early on, but a one-off attempt early on with few followers probably isn’t going to produce any useful insights.

    2) Re: poetry, and this might sound horrid, but humor me here, is it possible that for short verse (or select stanzas from longer work, accompanied by link) it might actually perform as it does or even better on that kind of platform formatted as…a macro. A apt bit of stock image for a background, a stylistically suitable font, lettering set in contrast to the image. Voila, an eye-catching graphic to pull the eye where hopefully the brain and heart will follow. If that would work, what would that sort of Hallmarkification of actual poetry as a requirement for interest and engagement say about the audience? What would willingness to do it say about the author?

  • Re: #2, I think Blake called those “illuminated texts.”

  • Let me play devil’s advocate, since I;m an all-about-the-words kind of guy,

    Designed with post-literacy in mind? I’m finding Ello not so word friendly. And I’m more than willing to like it cause of the smart people there…but while I like them, maybe they’re not my people…?

  • We know where it is. We do not know where it is going. It’s logical that a bunch of designers would make something with a heavy visual assumption. It is not logical that said people, being part of a business venture, would attempt to make it big with a social network that was unfriendly to conversations.

    They may have ideas that I don’t understand, but until that is proven to me, we’re in beta and I’m expecting features that address these issues.

  • The reason I’m not posting anything political there is that they’re still hung up on the Twitter “follow” paradigm. As long as anyone who clicks “friend” can instantly get access to everything someone has ever posted there, no one will be posting anything that might be unsafe for work.

    The ability to control the reach of a post is essential to any social network.

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