Why Facebook won't be feeling threatened by Ello...yet

Zuckerberg’s creation isn't a social network - it’s your online identity. And that’s a pretty powerful position to be in

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If I told you there’s a new site that lets you connect with your friends and share pictures and updates, people are signing up in droves, and only a select few have actually been allowed to join yet, you’d be forgiven for wondering why this publication was posting articles from a decade ago about scruffily-attired Harvard students.

But this in fact relates the rise of Ello, dubbed by some the 'anti-Facebook'. Ello’s guiding principle is that it won’t sell your data - its founder, a bicycle designer and shop owner named Paul Budnitz, has promised it will remain ad-free for ever, instead making money from selling premium features to users who want their social network that little bit better.

You can see the appeal. In an age of Snowden, the Heartbleed virus and celebrity photo leaks, people have started waking up to quite how much the devices and apps they use know about them, and it’s making them uncomfortable. Google serves up ads based on the contents of your email inbox, for God’s sake. And besides, the antiquated idea that you might actually pay for the services you use has a certain charm to it.

Ello has some other nice features, too. It doesn’t force you to use your real name, which benefits everyone from transgender people to musicians. It’s got the kind of trendy, minimal design that Facebook, first built when Friends was still airing new episodes, can only dream of. And, most importantly, it’s shiny and new. You can’t underestimate the importance of that in today’s tech climate.

But I doubt Zuckerberg and co are losing too much sleep over it. People got very excited about Google Plus when it launched back in 2011, only for it to become little more than a social network for Google employees. 31,000 signups to Ello an hour is nice, but next to Facebook’s 1.23 billion users it might as well be a single small family in Hounslow. Not only are one in six people on the planet on Facebook; one in 87 of the humans who’ve ever lived use it. It’s going to take more than a pretty interface and a smattering of press coverage to beat that.

The important thing here, though, is that Ello has gained any kind of traction at all. This particular social network might not be the Facebook-killer some are prophesying it to be; neither might the one after that, nor the one after that. But, at some point, someone will get it right. There’s someone out there, probably currently writing their first lines of code in an after school club, who will have the right idea at the right time, and will hit upon a better way to connect people. The MySpace team didn’t see Facebook coming, after all.

And, when that happens, Facebook are in trouble. Tech advocates, early adopters, trend-setters - all of these will leave, as they are now for Ello but on a far greater scale. Sure, there are millions of people on Facebook who won’t be convinced to switch network by little more than the promise of a cleaner interface - but what’s the point of being on a social network your friends aren’t on? For the first time in years, that hockey stick graph being projected in Menlo Park will take a downwards turn, and it won’t recover.

But if you think people leaving the site will spell the end for Facebook, you’ve underestimated both the company and the colossal vision of its founder. Because it long ago ceased to be a social network in the traditional sense of the word. Facebook is much more than just the Facebook site; you can like, comment and even login to different services, all over the web, using Facebook. Facebook has a presence on a quarter of the world’s top 10,000 websites. It’s not a social network - it’s your online identity. And that’s a pretty powerful position to be in.

What’s more, it’s grown so huge that, if young upstarts like Ello get a little too popular, Zuckerberg can get out the cheque book and bring them into the Facebook fold. And if you think that’s unlikely, bear in mind that it’s already happened - Instagram started taking some of the photo-sharing market, so Facebook dropped a billion dollars on their team of 13 employees. And, sure enough, there’s now a ‘Login with Facebook’ button right there on Instagram’s home screen.

So no, the rise of Ello might not be curtains for Facebook. But it’s a reminder that a service that can attract users as quickly as Facebook did can lose them just as quickly. Which means that, even with a billion users, you need to be constantly innovating.

(If you liked this post, share it on Facebook. Or on Ello. Or on whichever new social network the kids are using by the time you read it.)

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