Trust me, this post really is about Ello, it just needs a little context.
The world appears to be complicated. But really it isn’t. oh sure there are 7 billion people crowded on to this relatively tiny lump of orbital debris we call a planet, divided into some 196 states and some 2,896 major cities, operating a variety of political systems from capitalist democracies and plutocracies to totalitarian military dictatorships. The global economy is worth in total – adding together every single thing people do for money from school janitor to Fortune 500 CEO – an estimated $72 TRILLION. It’s a big number, and we keep ourselves busy making it all happen. But the brutal truth is that all of this human activity, all of the work, play, art, love, hate and BUSINESS of human life boils down to, and is energised by, one very simple idea.
We have a lot of names for status, some may seem more relevant to you than others. Wealth. How much money do you have? But billionaire or bum, wealth is really just a scoring system that we use to measure status. Power. What do you control? Do you command armies? Do you chair the boardroom? Are you head of the family, tribe, clan? But power is just a measure of what your status buys you. Identity. Rockstar. Artist. Professor. Father. Mother. Lover. Who are you? What is your status? That’s the question every human alive is struggling to answer, and it can only be answered in relation to others. Our status only exists in relation to society.
(Worth noting that I don’t necessarily like this any more than you do, but I do believe it to be true. Are there ways out of this status nightmare? Yes, but that’s a topic for another time.)
So one way to understand the staggering explosion of social networks in the last decade is as the latest evolution in the millennia long contest for social status that powers pretty much every facet of human life. What we’re doing on social networks like Facebook and Twitter is transporting the complex webs of social status from the physical in to the digital world. Family, friends, work colleagues, professional networks. Social media makes our social relationships easier, quicker and more effective. And it lets us forge new social networks. To build new online lives and careers to go with them in many cases. But the fuel super-charging the engines of social media isn’t an extension of the status-quo. No. What dragged so many of us to Facebook and Twitter was their potential for social revolution.
I would never have had the kind of writing career I have today before social media. Never in a month of Sundays.
Once we have status, we want to keep it. And the more status we have, the more invested we are keeping the status quo intact. If society collapsed tomorrow the biggest losers would be the elite – the politicians, billionaires, celebrities and the rest whose vast privilege relies on millions of other people buying in to the society they sit at the top of. Following the financial crash of 2008 lots of people woke up to the reality that ballooning debt bubbles had disguised – our emerging global society is just as unjust and inflexible as every other society that came before it. If you are born in to a farm labouring family in Nigeria, a working class family in Russia, or an upper class family in Switzerland, you’re likely to stay in that relative status for your whole life. Our society is structured to protect and maintain itself, and while social mobility is possible as an individual, the statistics dictate that it will only be possible for a few individuals in any given group.
And then comes an explosion of computer technology, the internet, and with it, social media. Technological innovation always disrupts social hierarchies in the short term. The industrial revolution displaced old aristocratic systems in most of the world, replacing them the merchant class and today’s modern corporate system. The information revolution is displacing existing power structures all over the place. The little world of book publishing I deal with is being gutted by Amazon, a technology savy business quickly destroying the powerful publishers that came before it. Social media has been phenomenally popular not just as a venue for crazy cat videos and sexting. In a myriad of smaller ways, social media has empowered people to find new kinds of status that weren’t available before.
Here is an admission. I would never have had the kind of writing career I have today before social media. Never in a month of Sundays. Before the internet the UK media and the publishing world were a rigged game that you only got access to if you were born in to the right level of society that could get you to a good university, and probably some kind of inheritance to subsidise your income. I’m just a kid from a council estate with a minor aptitude for words that would never have seen light of day without the internet. Without my blog, the comment threads and forums and social networks where I built my profile, and the revolutionary shift from print to digital that has created every opportunity I’ve ever had as a writer, I’d be doing whatever people like me did before the internet.
(Theft in my case, looking at the careers of most of my school friends.)
So why the hell, given how much so many people have gained from social networks like Twitter and Facebook, are a whole bunch of power users from those places leaping on board a half-built upstart newcomer like Ello? Let’s be clear, it’s really not about it’s hipster design ethic. It’s also not the only social network you’ll see people migrating to over the next few years. Be prepared for a long haul social network shuffle, as savvy internet denizens shift their assets from one virtual territory to the next. Why? Because as fast as these networks challenge the status quo, they then lock it down again. The impetus to move from Twitter to Ello was the announcement that Twitter would begin filtering timelines. Translated to the eternal status game of human existence, this mean Twitter locking down its status structure, so that those with status – the famous, the rich, governments and corporations – can once again dominate the conversation that they temporarily lost control of.
This is what we mean when we say that Facebook or Twitter has gone “evil”. These companies have built a business on the promise of disrupting and levelling the status-quo. Now, at the perfectly predictable moment, they’ve sold that promise out to the Powers That Be, in exchange for VAST wealth, power and personal status. Twitters founders, executives and, crucially, it VC funders, aren’t looking to make a living. They’re playing to win the ultimate status, to become the new aristocracy of the new social structure these new technologies are creating, with the reward that they and their children and their children’s children for generations to come will have the very highest levels of status. The Enclosure of the social media commons begins, and like the robber barons of old, the Twitter founders and their funders will reap the highest rewards. The sad truth is, if you were given that option, you’d take it as well.
And of course, the lovely founders of Ello will in due course also turn evil. We forgive you, in advance. But in the mean time, another window of revolutionary opportunity to disrupt the status quo has opened. Enough people have leaped aboard the Ello bandwagon this week that we can guarantee that something interesting is going to come of it. As interesting as the early days of Twitter, which made a new kind of internet celebrity? Unlikely. But who knows, maybe there is life in old social media horse yet.