[Please consider commenting via the forum even if you read this on Facebook or G+]
Recently, a new social medium named "Ello" has made a bit of a splash, despite being woefully incomplete. The main things that seem to have attracted large numbers of users to this alpha-test service are:
- A promise never to use advertisements for revenue
- A promise not to sell user data in other ways
- No "real name" policy
At the same time, they've already gotten considerable flack, mainly for:
- Being venture-capital based, which means, almost by definition, that they have plans to eventually sell the company, and hence, the userbase, to somebody
- No real privacy controls
- Questionable user inteface design decisions
- Features that don't work
While not wishing to seem like an apologist for something about which I am myself somewhat skeptical, I think most of the flack they're getting on all four bullet points is unrealistic at best.
In lodging his complaint, however, it seems to me that Balkan has not learned the lesson of Diaspora*, the last attempt to build an advertising-free competitor to Facebook. Diaspora went the completely open route -- free as in freedom, free as in beer -- with a non-profit organization as its base. The theoretical advantage of Diaspora is that anyone could run their own "pod" and have full control over it, while interacting with the other pods. On paper, it sounds like a great idea, appealing to several niches at once in lieu of any mainstream appeal.
I'm sure there are people who use it. I might even know a few...but they never talk about it and never suggest I or anyone else should.
(That said, I do occasionally toy with the idea of setting up a pod myself and inviting people to use it...)
Writing complex software well is a time-intensive process. Some people don't value their time very highly (in monetary terms) and are willing to simply pour their energies into an interesting project for its own sake. Others (and I freely admit I'm in this category) believe their time is worth a fair amount of money and expect to get paid for their efforts.
This does not preclude writing free software. Both the Ghost platform I use to write this blog and the Discourse platform I use for the forum are free software that anyone can run themselves. The main teams working on each platform intend to make their revenue by offering hosted service and paid support. This has become a fairly common model.
But the initial money still has to come from somewhere. Maybe you're lucky and you have a nest egg, or a supporting spouse. Maybe you can crowdfund your idea (that's what Mr Balkan's doing). Maybe you have no debts and live so frugally that you can somehow live on a part-time job or even barter with friends. All of these are viable, and lots of projects owe themselves to one of these modes of funding (or not-really-funding as the case may be).
Mr Balkan is not entirely wrong when he says that venture capital can mean that all that matters is the exit. Certainly there's plenty of venture capital that works that way. But it's not like this was millions of dollars. If the numbers Balkan reports are correct (and I have no reason to doubt him), we're talking a fairly modest sum that pays the people currently working on the project.
Of course, the investors are going to expect a return on that, and maybe they are expecting a traditional "exit", but for that little capital, maybe not. Either way, the service is eventually going to have to do something to monetize anyway, because again, people need to get paid; server hosts need to get paid; network providers need to get paid.
Mr Balkan's idealism has its place, and I particularly like the fact that he's in the middle of trying to put his own money where his mouth is--as the links above show, he's about to kick off a crowdfunding campaign to try to create alternatives to existing services, but that genuinely guard privacy. Crowdfunding is great, but it's no more a guarantee of the success of the project than Venture Capital is a guarantee of failure.
So now lets look at the privacy aspect of this. Part of Balkan's anti-vul..er..venture capital argument is that eventually, as part of an exit, the service (and hence, the customers) will be sold and bye-bye privacy.
OK. Maybe so. Maybe not, if they can monetize some other way (like actually charging users for premium features). If they do, then people are just as free to leave them as they are to leave any other place.
In the meantime, they're at least trying to create a service where you, the user, have control over how you identify yourself. It's not actually all that new a concept--LiveJournal never really enforced identity much, either, and Dreamwidth still doesn't. They've botched a couple of things, in my opinion--not designing in privacy and blocking controls from the get-go kinda doesn't match up with their claim that they want to be a service that enhances personal privacy and "safety" on the Internet. They're working on it, though.
So now, let's be clear about something: I'm not sold on Ello's service. I have an account there, I see some real potential, but I'm not convinced that they're going to attract critical mass away from Facebook. I desperately want them, or someone like them, to succeed in that regard, though, because I loathe Facebook with the fire of ten million suns.
But I don't care how they're funded. All I care about is if they ultimately deliver on their promises. If they don't, we can revile them after the fact. To do so before the fact is dumb.