Ello is tonglen for social networkers

Stories of beowulf wiglaf and beowulf.jpg
"Stories of beowulf wiglaf and beowulf" by J. R. Skelton - Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The new social network Ello is being heralded and defined in terms of what it is not. Its main claims to fame are that it will not sell you, or sell to you. We have reached Peak Internet, where the set of things that the Internet already does for us is smaller than the things it could, do but doesn't yet.

So what does Ello do? Well, you know, the same thing that they all do. It lets you clamor on about stuff, to (or "towards") people who might be listening. But the community that has sprung up around Ello is not a perfect cross-section of netizens. I see a lot of "creatives", visual incendiaries, alleged outsiders, and neo-goblins, who are attracted, perhaps, to Ello's unique visual design and stripped down feature set, an aesthetic Warren Ellis has named "medical-grade internet", or "Miserable Web".

The Internet is a place that makes it cheap to be terrible. In the real world, there are costs associated with mediocrity, but out here in the wastes, all our voices are lifted, and the tyranny of meritocracy is overthrown. Social networks and blogging platforms make it easy to put elegant frames around the cacophony of our content. And since the final result looks so beautiful, we (the creators and the consumers) are deluded into thinking that the content automatically has merit.

At first, in the early days of the Designy Web last decade, we saw this as elevating the world's garbage to something like art. But then we realized later that this was a bad thing, and made us look ridiculous in the annals of cultural history.

Now, seeing misspelled drunken hate-speech center-typeset against Tumblr's graceful blues and whites and rounded kernings, seeing trash look as beautiful as art, just makes everyone feel bad. At a certain point, the beauty begins to mock us.

We've lost the sense of the Web as a platform. Like, literally a wooden plank, upon which you can choose to rest a beautiful bronze statue, or a rotting musk ox corpse. The promise of the Web has never been anything except that it will support whatever you hang on it. But the modern fascism of digital beauty has convinced a generation of netizens that the promise of the Web is actually a velvet-draped pulpit whose visual power absolves you of the burdens of wisdom or relevance.

What Ello gives us back is the sense that we must bring the beauty and elegance with us. Ello is beautiful only in how it does not impose any particular sense of beauty upon us. It tries to keep its own visual aesthetic out of your way, and this has attracted some very beautiful people to its ranks.

Now, obviously, this state will not last. Each social network, and social movement, and revolution, is in reaction to the last one, and soon, once Ello has grown unrecognizable, another brave young Wiglaf will come to show us another new dawn. This is the way of things, and the conversation now should not be about if Ello will survive, or if Ello will kill Twitter, or whatever, but rather we should be celebrating a fresh new space in which to breathe.

Each new social network is a breath. It takes in the soul of its forebears and puts out into the world something that is perhaps a little bit better, for now. We are not on a path towards anything; we are just on a path. The Internet, like all great minds, is a feedback loop. It morphs and twitches and slides about as it is pulled by an ever-increasing mass of cultural and artistic forces. Sometimes those forces sum to an unexpected or radical conclusion, and this is a good thing.

Frankly, I don't think the Internet is trying hard enough to surprise us anymore. I want to be horrified by a new revolution, because that gives our culture excuse to breathe and grow.

That is the level that I want this Ello conversation to be happening on, not on the finer points of API security or ad revenues models. How can we get better, god damn it. How can the Internet show us how to get better at the Internet?


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