Ello, Ello, hello….. I’m beta testing

Of course everyone would love to see a rival to the behemoth Facebook, and moreover an alternative to the politics of datamining it engages in. No one wants to see their subjectivity and relations turned into capital or conceived as a profit-making scheme, especially when the dividends are not shared amongst its users.

However, as of yet there have been no viable candidates to challenge the platform. Suffice it to say; most us have a longing for things to be otherwise. As a result, with each offer of a new alternative, hopes run high, criticism about Silicon Valley’s economies are abundant, and upon implementation, expectations are quickly deflated. One need only look at Diaspora for an illustration of a similar narrative arc.

Now hopes are pinned on Ello, a platform with a manifesto stating: “Your social network is owned by advertisers. 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. ”

Sounds good in promise. The platform is also initiated by Paul Budnitz, who it should be noted, studied photography, sculpture, and film at Yale University. This background places him slightly outside the tradition of computer science and engineering geeks (this is said with a great deal of affection). As an entrepreneur, he’s hip, he started Kidrobot, the company that gave us those cute little graffiti style plastic rabbits (call it the Swatch approach to toys and branding), and he even owns and runs a company that produces luxury bicycles (I’ll come back to this).

In other words, at least on the surface, he’s the opposite of Mark Zuckerberg, or someone like Larry Page; he’s the perfect poster child of what rhetorically, the creative industries would have us become. I say us, because I’m the director of a small graduate art institute. Anyone currently working within an art school knows the pressure to conform to the promises of the creative industries and is bombarded with its jargon. After all, this model moves us out of depending on classical patronage (something well worth interrogating), takes us away from the academic ivory tower and brings us into contact with what supposedly matters – big business, consumerism and as the term clearly states “industries”.

In this paradigm creativity and innovation go hand in hand. It’s the perfect formula, however the one thing we’re discouraged from questioning are the very foundations and economic underpinnings that drive these industries, or the fact that innovation (as conceived in this context) might be taking us to a place that is ultimately unsustainable for ourselves and the environment.

Suffice it to say, that while different from someone like Zuckerberg, Budnitz’s endgame however may ultimately be the same. Already, they’ve taken the route of all start-ups – investors have contributed a substantial amount of funding, and a large investment always means stakeholders will want something back. It’s unlikely, that the return will be about protecting user data or being satisfied with helping us better connect with our friends. With these kinds of platforms, the script (both embedded in the code and constructed norms of the behavioral regime) is somewhat predictable – it is inevitably connected to a bigger agenda and a larger economic structure.

So, why am I beta testing despite Ello? Am I being cynical…. can’t we just return to a decentralized model? Certainly the latter has its virtues and there are plenty of people out there championing that cause – look at Thimbl – it’s a great project, but that said it is exactly that, a project – of limited scope and reach, which operates on a representational register, pointing towards an Internet that was. This is different than a fully functional social network where my 90-year-old grandmother can connect to me as well as my more tech savvy friends.

Making compromises or at times feeling compromised seems to sum up the times we’re in. While riding my bike, I’m thinking about the implications of all of this. As someone who resides in the Netherlands, my bike is a necessity. It’s my primary mode of transportation. Admittedly, I find slightly irksome that I’m surrendering to someone who is turning bikes into luxury goods. But I suppose luxury bikes are better than gas guzzling SUVs in the scheme of things. And here’s the conundrum, I’m looking for alternatives; that is, social platforms that are functional, rather than symbolic. Whether Ello is more equitable, less exploitative of our data, and reliant on different economies has yet to be established – it might in fact be another gas guzzling (datamining) option. But without anything else out there, continuing to pedal is all I can do…..