Peak Ello… already?

Disclaimer: I was an early Tumblr employee.

The Internet class lost its collective minds over the weekend when Ello - through its beta invite ‘forced scarcity’ system - went viral. Shades of Pinterest, Fab and Mailbox.

Ello offers not new functionality or innovation, but a new manifesto: “vote for us because we’re not Facebook.” Unfortunately, as products go, few have successes campaigning in the negative. 

Let’s look at what Ello actually is. It’s a gorgeous canvas for photos and text that is friendly to hybrid forms of GIFs and emojis. A place for self-expression. A watering hole for early adopters, especially designers and other creatives. A place for status updates. A place for portfolios.

Does this sound familiar? Oh yeah, it’s Tumblr, circa 2007.

The main issue here? Ello doesn’t offer anything new. It’s a redesigned Tumblr, with less features. Tumblr’s early thrust was both the dashboard and external blogs.

Everyone focuses on how easy it was to post things, but the early community was drawn to the creative themes, the bookmarklet and the dashboard. The dashboard was for community and the external blogs, with its attendant themes, were honeypots for designers, fashionistas, photographers and anyone who can work their way around Photoshop’s lighting effects. At the time, those were supernova innovations (cribbed from other places, but gelled together so well).

Now, in addition to all that, Tumblr has kick ass search courtesy of Yahoo, great ops engineering, crazy good mobile apps, photosets, GIF support, music integration, a great Theme Garden, Blog Spotlight, and so on. Alas, messaging remain rudimentary.

Looking at Ello’s proposed features roadmap, it’s a rehash of early Tumblr and in some ways, Twitter. There’s your friends/contacts. And there’s noise, which is a precursor to Tumblr Tags and Twitter Discover.  

So can Ello be the next big social network? Right now? No. A redesigned social network without any major innovation (i.e. explicit product features) cannot sustain enough momentum from viral marketing and philosophical announcements to get users to switch. “No ads” is product development by omission.. which is weird.

Many will be curious and try out the product. But Tumblr hasn’t stumbled - it’s product is as strong as ever for self-expression (despite increasing advertisements encroaching on the user experience) and Twitter owns the noise. But if Ello can come up with a killer feature or a set of features — be it focused on privacy, communication, distribution, or content creation - its design and marketing can spawn a formidable challenger for the incumbents.

As it is, my Ello feed is silent this Monday, after a frenzied 4-5 hours of activity over the last week. Let’s see how this plays out.



Rob Dean:

Over on his excellent website, Extension 765, Soderbergh has uploaded a black-and-white version of the 1981 blockbuster in an effort to prompt cinephiliacs to think about how an impressive talent like Spielberg was able to convey so much of the story merely through length and composition of shots. He also removed all sound from the video, instead replacing it with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Social Network, so that viewers can solely focus on the staging of the film.

So this is what “retirement" is like for Soderbergh. (The end result, which you can watch on Soderbergh’s site is beautiful and sort of mesmerizing.)

I don’t think we need another social network. But every few years or so, a new one comes up, and by virtue of their newness alone, they get a few early adopters. And when there are a few like-minded people in a sparse network, you can be forgiven for thinking that the product design is good enough — after all, the there’s no noise and conversation can be had! The hard part will be to create value for users who don’t buy into the early hype.

Early adopters don’t care so much about longevity of a service. They’re happy to spread their reputation around on all corners of the web. But for a service that “won’t sell my data”, how will Ello make money to cover server, staff and maintenance costs? I can only imagine subscription fees coming into play. Or some sort of gamification. But even then, as a user, do I really want to devote more time and energy to create content for a service that may or may not be around in a year’s time? Scale costs money and freemium can only get you so far.

Despite all that, I can’t help but love upstarts.

Ello is doing most things well. Launch by supporting a few rabid users. Limit supply to increase demand via invite codes. Provide the illusion of activity by displaying vanity metrics that reflects the user’s own actions. Keep the feature set simple.

And here’s a huge “BUT” - can a social network succeed in 2014 by launching only on desktop and have no mobile app presence?

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, describing the startup ethos pretty well, at a time when the govt also behaved this way, to pull the country out of the Great Depression.
The company is obviously now an attractive acquisition target.

Yahoo Stock Gets Crushed As Alibaba IPOs — Core Business Now Valued At Less Than Zero (via iamdanw)

Crazy. They have a few properties (they call them that instead of products) that have usage: Fantasy Sports, News.

But where is growth coming from? Their acquisitions result in founder flight, their mobile experiments haven’t made a dent, and their largest properties see growth flatlining (my best guess) while sucking in more resources. And their display ad rates belie some serious weakness when Facebook captures more of advertisers’ budgets — and mobile display is the future of the industry. They’ve given up on search ads to Google in 2009 and it’s too late to resuscitate search tech. They’re clearly betting on a future of being a media company despite Marissa’s public announcements w the Tumblr acquisition, original content programming, and mobile news efforts.

Dead company walking?

Update: here’s an interesting analysis from Bloomberg about Yahoo’s core business.. arguing that breaking them up may unlock more value then any economies of scale could be had from remaining together. Kind of ironic for their newly acquired properties.

I’ve been noticing the rise of small batch media recently. The NYTimes Now app have editors curating stories from their main org, breaking articles down into photos, videos and quotes and linking them back to the full articles. Just like Tumblr’s dashboard.

It’s a good thing for users. It’s engaging.

But mobile design is in this weird state where everything starts to look the same - designers are basically shuffling a media object (photo, quote, link, etc.), attribution and timestamp around. And if they’re not using a grid, they’re futzing with pixels in a feed/list format.  There are only so many ways to perfect the schema. And pretty soon, every service will converge on full bleed photos, flat little sharing icons, dark text for content and light text for everything else. I’m surprised that Tumblr didn’t have full bleed photos until iOS8.

Convergence makes differentiation a lot harder. The mobile interface is basically a rectangular piece of glass. I wonder if we’re at the tail end of something - have we all reached the finish line of how to display content on a mobile screen? If so, I’m excited to see if we’re at the beginning of another revolution.