As part of our continuing discussion over the ethics of Facebook’s emotional manipulation study, Philip Cohen advanced the idea that we should simply declare FB a public utility and regulate it as such:
But Facebook is too big, and they own irreplaceable archives of hundreds of millions of people’s stuff. I figure just nationalize it or regulate it as a public utility – call it critical infrastructure. Then let private companies out-innovate boring Facebook.gov if they want to and win people away.
This notion struck me as a bit extreme, but provocative in just the right way. What kind of a service is a massive social network and in whose interests should it be run? We need better answers to that question.
Enter Ello.co. Ello is a new social network designed to capitalize on growing dislike of Facebook. At its launch, Ello declared that it would forever be ad-free in its manifesto (reproduced in full here):
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. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.
We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.
You are not a product.
This manifesto was met with both cheers and skepticism. How would Ello fund itself if not through ads? If it did manage to capitalize on its shiny ethics to build a large user base, what would keep it from cashing out? When Ello was revealed to have taken venture capital funding, many people saw their fears confirmed. Ello was just another Silicon Valley start-up inevitably geared to finding new ways to monetize its users while explicitly claiming to do the opposite.
Ello just did something that makes me wonder if they might actually avoid that fate. This week, Ello announced that they have converted their corporate charter into a “Public Benefit Corporation”. Public benefit corporations are a class of socially responsible businesses that are designed to both make a profit and serve some larger goal.* Ello’s charter apparently includes protecting user data as part of its mission.
So, I admit it, I’m now interested in Ello again. Sure, right now it looks kind of awful, and there’s basically no content on it (a bit like Google Plus, but without the obvious attempt to integrate itself into every aspect of your online self). But I’m hopeful. Ello’s not a public utility – and it’s certainly not big enough to serve as one in the way that FB does – but it is taking seriously the idea that social networks have some socially useful role to play beyond harvesting data for advertisers. I wish them luck.
* Here at Michigan, Suntae Kim is studying the emergence of “B-corporations”, another class of socially responsible businesses. For more on the history of such businesses, check out his research here.