Before and after Ello: interview with Robert W. Gehl

Interview from the WebCultures mailing list, September 29 - October 3, 2014. Also archived here.

Robert W. Gehl is an an Assistant Professor in Communication at the University of Utah, and author of the book Reverse Engineering Social Media: Software, Culture, and Political Economy in New Media Capitalism (Temple University Press, 2014). The book combines key concepts from computer science and critical theory to analyze how social media operate, and provides a rich theoretical framework for understanding these platforms as engines of free labor. The book makes it crystal clear how, for example, Facebook’s product is not social interaction so much as information and eyeballs for advertisers, and how users are encouraged to go to work for social media platforms. It goes beyond criticism, though, to ask what an alternative to hegemonic social media could look like, and this focus on alternatives is also central to Rob’s current work.

Part of what makes Reverse Engineering valuable is its strong emphasis on viewing social media as an outcome of cultural and historical context, not least software engineering practices and the establishment of advertising standards for digital media in the 1990s and 2000s. Because of this, I’m sure that Rob will be able to help us to see the bigger picture around Ello.co, the social network site that bills itself as an alternative to Facebook and that went viral last week [1].

So here is the first question:

Ello’s homepage tells its users “You are not a product,” and one can opt out of sharing usage data with the company (although sharing this data is set as a default). At first glance, this seems like a massive step in the right direction, since surviving without tailored advertising seems like a prerequisite for a non-exploitative social network site. At the same time, the site does collect information that could presumably be used down the road by advertisers, if not necessarily for ads on Ello itself. In particular, critics have pointed to a line in Ello’s privacy policy that says it could share information with ‘affiliated companies’ at some point in the future (see https://ello.co/wtf/post/privacy).

What would it take for a social network site to deliver on a statement like ‘You are not a product’? Although it is early days, what do you see as the promises and perils of Ello and the excitement around it?

Rob: I'm quite interested in Ello because I am fascinated by alternatives to mainstream social media sites such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Like many on the list, I'm new to Ello, so I will try to frame it in terms of "social media alternatives".

*"What would it take for a social network site to deliver on a statement like ‘You are not a product’?"

I find myself of two minds about Ello. On the one hand, Ello's accepting venture capital and its strategically ambiguous terms that discuss sharing data with third parties gives me that "here we go again" feeling: Here's a new site that promises to deliver us from the old ones by not being evil and respecting us. All we have to do is the work of using it, making connections, being friends, writing posts, and contributing media. Half of me thinks it's inevitable Ello will eventually succumb to informational capitalism in some form, exploiting all the good-faith work people put into it, mired as it is in Silicon Valley. Perhaps Ello won't engage in behavioral marketing, but then again, perhaps it will innovate a new method to deliver our desires and fears to the marketers who have essentially turned the Internet into a mass medium. The line "you are not a product" reminds me of the Bill Hicks routine about marketing (I won't repeat it; I can't do it justice. Moreover, it's not "safe for work" as it were, but here's a YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDW_Hj2K0wo). In other words, as Hicks might say, they're going for that anti-marketing market.

But I also am an optimist. In my book, I argue that the critical way forward from the advertising-drenched, surveillance capitalism of mainstream social media can be found in reverse engineering. That is, a reverse engineer doesn't simply throw away a technology if she finds it to be lacking in some way; instead she takes it apart, critically considering what is positive about it and what should be removed, and then uses that knowledge to build an alternative. Ello could be said to be doing this, trying to offer social networking as we've come to understand it while improving on the genre. Objects that are reverse engineered will always bear a relation to the old. Ello recapitulates much of what we know about social media -- its organizing principle is individuals, it features a mix of "friending" and "following." But it is also promising something Facebook does not: pseudonyms, an anti-advertising stance, a minimalist aesthetic that is somewhat redolent of Facebook before the IPO.

My two minds appear in my book, where I spend most of my words critiquing social media, but then I end by saying we ought to support social media alternatives (rather than completely abandon social media). So I would say that, if you want to use Ello, do so. Experiment. At this point, it simply cannot be worse than Facebook.

But it is not ideal. The ideal that many social media critics and activists seem to agree on involves decentralization, open source architecture, and encryption. That is, the holy grail of social media alternatives appears to be a system that is far more under the user's control, living on the user's computer or on a server the user controls (or at least trusts), and would allow for private communication. Such systems would be transparent in how they're governed (i.e., sousveillant) and yet would allow users to hide from the surveillance of powerful entities. They would enable new forms of organization that blur the lines between coder, developer, designer, and user. I talk about efforts to do this in my book -- and how hard it is to implement this ideal -- and I continue to study them in my current work, hoping to further theorize what "alternative social media" might look like.

But there's a deeper sense to this question about the slogan "You are not a product." Can we even do social networking without becoming a "product"? Social networking on the Web appears to be wholly about us producing ourselves -- for our friends, families, audiences, employers. Along the way, in order to function, social networking sites -- even decentralized ones -- must store the data produced in rationalized archives and transmit it to us and those we share it with. This is why it is so attractive to marketers who lust to know our interests, desires, fears, and so on. Can a system exist in which we do not become products? I think that is not just a question of Ello -- it's a question of our political economy and how it is overdetermined with culture and subjectivity. But if we are to address this question at the level of social media rather than political economy, we need space to experiment with identities that are not "products" -- citizens, activists, tricksters, perhaps.

*"Although it is early days, what do you see as the promises and perils of Ello and the excitement around it?"

I will start with perils and sum them up in a word: Diaspora. I am surprised when I hear people ask, "What happened to Diaspora?" or "Why did Diaspora fail?" In a sense, Diaspora did not fail. In fact, it's alive and well with active users and "pods." However, Diaspora "failed" to live up to the hype that was dumped on it when it was labeled in the NY Times and other places a "Facebook Killer." The same is happening to Ello, which is very early in its development. If this narrative holds, if Ello fails to "kill" Facebook, then it will fail no matter how successful it is. (Interestingly, Diaspora also sought VC funding via Y Combinator before becoming a "community project").

A second peril is that, just as Facebook and Twitter have before, Ello will gain a large user base and then innovate ways to monetize them without having the users see it as such. Ello has hamstrung itself with this "ad-free" model but, let's face it, marketers are only just starting to figure out how to turn the Web into a capitalist playground. Perhaps Ello will help realize the "data locker" system and we can sell our data to bidders, rather than give it away for free. Perhaps it will do a "shareholder" model as Zurker has and equate money with votes.

Because I am an optimist, however, I will end on promises. The promise of Ello and social media alternatives is that designers, coders, and users recognize the severe problems of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and they seek better ways. If alternatives can fuse the ease-of-use of Twitter with anti-commercial, anti-surveillance structures, -- that is, if they can bring down the "opportunity cost" of trying a new and better system -- then perhaps we can experiment more with new forms. It took me about 5 minutes to sign up for Ello and make a friend. Let's say I don't like Ello; I could move on to the next alternative, migrating until I find one that meets my politics, one that affords new subjectivities or possibilities, or one with a crowd I want to be a part of. If we have multiple systems that are simple like that, more experiments could happen, and perhaps we could move past Facebook and this creeping centralization of the Web.

Your two minds seem to be one with the general reaction to Ello, which has whiplashed between enthusiasm and cynicism the past few days.

Enthusiastic responses I have read go beyond Ello’s lack of advertising and praise the site’s design more generally. As Quinn Norton notes, it allows for the liveliness we’ve come to expect of social media (think Twitter and Facebook timelines), while the lack of clutter means longer pieces also seem like they belong [https://medium.com/message/what-does-ethical-social-networking-software-look-like-315373c898ed]. Enthusiasm about Ello’s form is perhaps nostalgic: Norton compares it to early LiveJournal, and I doubt it will be long before someone equates Ello with ‘what the web was meant to be.’

Meanwhile, beyond the main criticisms (i.e. that Ello has taken VC money and will eventually find ways to sell user data to advertisers), some of the backlash is notable for being conservative. For example, Ian Bogost quickly responded to the hype by saying “the problem with social media isn't just the ads/data gathering part. It's also the social media part,” presumably taking aim at how these platforms encourage banal and superficial uses [https://www.facebook.com/ibogost/posts/10152775683321979].

What seems missing from the conversation is an understanding of how closely the surveillance and advertising apparatus is tied to social media form, something that you discuss throughout your book and in particular in a chapter on the relationship between advertising standards and social media conventions. Could you talk a little about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which social media companies (through their interfaces and policies) encourage uses that benefit their ability to sell more advertising? And on the other side, how is this interplay between business model and form addressed in the alternative social media projects you study? Are alternative social media projects built primarily on a desire to tackle the “ads/data gathering part,” or are they also looking to solve “the social media part,” in the sense of providing a higher-quality experience (however this is defined)?

What's interesting about social media is that it was never innocent. There can be no atavistic urge to "go back" to a time when it was anti-commercial or anti-surveillance. Rather, as I argue in my book, it appears right after the online advertising industry had done the hard work of producing advertising standards in the 1990s. Trade groups like the Interactive Advertising Bureau (comprised of both content producers, marketing firms, and Internet companies) worked very hard to standardize advertising metrics and practices in the years before social media took off. One standardization was simple: they tamed the chaos that was banner advertising, which at one point involved over 250 different sizes, and reduced these sizes to less than 10. More importantly, they also standardized the metrics used to measure advertising effectiveness, as well as tracking technologies. Today measurements like CPM (clicks per one thousand impressions) and tracking tools like cookies are standard fare on the Internet, and these standard conventions allow for advertisers to compete for our attention rather than spend precious time mucking about with hundreds of different approaches.

Right after this happens, in the early 2000s, we see Web 2.0 and the "participatory" Web discourses, where we each can have a blog, edit wikis, and socialize. These practices were possible, in part, because advertisers could reach them and fund them. Think of the all the bloggers who sell Adwords space.

But the best expression of the online advertising industry's standards has to be social media sites like Facebook, which allow us to express our likes and profile ourselves. What a goldmine for marketers! These sites grew up in a media and cultural milieu of standardized advertising practices and tracking technologies, user-led media production, venture capital, IPOs, and fast cash (perhaps stifled a bit by the dot-com crash, but still strong). It's really interesting to note (as I do in an article in the New Inquiry -- http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/a-history-of-like/) that Facebook's Like button echoes decades of marketing language, specifically the subfield of "liking studies", which theorized that if a brand is "liked" it will sell better. The name of Facebook's first marketing-friendly effort, "Beacon", was specifically an homage to IAB-influenced tracking technologies. But beyond echoing marketing language, as we are well aware, Facebook, Twitter, and Google are constantly altering layouts, deploying products, changing their terms, and buying smaller firms, all with the goal of dataveillance and the subsequent wealth that comes from selling us. For a period of time, it seemed like a rite of Spring: Facebook would change its terms to better gather data on us, millions would set up a Facebook page decrying the changes, Facebook will apologize, and then it would simply keep its change.

So, rather than our "going back" to some pre-advertising utopia, and perhaps despite the powerful nostalgia for past online sites, our work is cut out for us: if we care about online communication, specifically social media, if we want to make it free of surveillance, one key job we have is to build a different political economy of the Internet.

And there is hope of exactly this. Despite all its problems, look at Wikipedia. It's a non-profit. Compare the javascript and cookies you receive at wikipedia.org to what you see from Facebook (or the New York Times, for that matter). It's radically different. Why? Their business model is not based on tracking us. It's based on donations (as well as, of course, free labor). Moreover, as Nate Tkacz and Andrew Famiglietti have pointed out, this is not due to the benevolence of Jimmy Wales; it's due to a labor strike early on in the history of Wikipedia, where Spanish Wikipedians refused to contribute to a site that would sell ads around their work. Imagine if this had happened early in Facebook's history!

But this point about Wikipedia doesn't quite answer your question about social media. Perhaps, to follow Bogost's point, we ought to walk away from social media. After all, it is intimately tied to online marketing. But can we deny social media's positive sides? We have seen enhanced organization of activism, new forms of media production, the erosion of many cultural gate-keepers and taste-aribiters, and new ways of many-to-many communication, and (and this is not to be ignored) new pleasures.

This is why I look to the alternatives to see what they're doing. Twister, for example, is a Twitter alternative that is decentralized and built on the Bitcoin and bittorrent protocols, powered by computer cycles (in the same way as Bitcoin). GNU Social is a decentralized social media protocol that has resulted in multiple services like Quitter.se. The Dark Web Social Network (see http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2498629) is a social networking site that is visible only to Tor-enabled browsers.

I would argue that projects like these are attempting to reimagine social media as well as combat the primacy of consumerism online. They do it in different ways; it's our job as scholars to trace their specificities and theorize from there. Doing this work could answer your questions, which are spot-on: are these alternatives simply combating advertising ("you are not a product!")? Are they reimagining "social media" -- trying new organizing principles? Are they doing both? And how? Or are they doing something new, something we don't yet have a language for?

One more question from me. Last questions are usually about the future, but given this list’s profile I’ll try to make it about future histories.

I think your argument that social media are inextricably tied to the establishment of web advertising standards is important and useful. Too often, new media are historicized lazily, and in extreme cases it just sounds ridiculous (e.g. books on blogging that point to the bible and Thomas Paine as precursors).

Your book does not set out to tell the history of social media, but could be described as theory with a strong historical commitment. In addition to the history of web advertising standards, you draw on a number of foundational concepts in computer science, artificial intelligence and software engineering, and suggest that we see social media as an extension of some of the core assumptions and practices from these disciplines. In this way, social media are drawn into an intellectual history that goes back to, say, cybernetics or Alan Turing’s universal machine. Could you talk a little about this approach and what it adds to a theory of social media? Also, pretending for a moment that you would set out to write a history of social media, what are (other) promising lines of inquiry that need to be explored? You mentioned the history of ‘liking studies’; are there more lineages that you think will shed light on our social media moment? (Asking for a friend.)

*"Could you talk a little about [the historical] approach and what it adds to a theory of social media?"

I suppose the main reason I look to the past is out of self-preservation. It's hard work living in the present... let alone writing a book about it!

On a more serious note, however, my book began as my dissertation circa 2008, written towards the tail end of the Web 2.0 hype, where we had a very strange moment where everything was 2.0: library 2.0, government 2.0, education 2.0, community 2.0, porn 2.0 (my favorite has to be the re-branding of Vegemite as "iSnack 2.0"). In other words, as Google and Amazon became household names, as "You" became the TIME Person of the Year in 2006, there was this hyped-up sense that everything was different because of user-led production and increased broadband penetration. The 2.0 was very often presented as a break from the past, where the anyone associated with the old (old economy, old rules, old practices, and the clumsy retronym "Web 1.0") was seen as being left behind. As often happens, that moment was seen by those living in it to be different and special.

But, as anyone doing Foucauldian genealogy would see right away, the past matters; threads of past practices cohere in contemporary practices. Old problems become reproblematized in new ways, and old solutions are repackaged as 2.0 solutions, so to speak. I coupled my interest in historicizing with my interest in computer architecture and software and found many historical, technical practices that reemerge in new ways in the present.

For example, the fundamental division at the heart of stored-program computing, the Von Neumann Architecture, reemerges in social media in the division between the immediate and the archival, a division that largely aligns users with processing and social media site owners with storage of data. Also, the software engineering practice of using an "architecture" to divide up and direct the creative labor of implementation returns as social media sites integrate users as creative laborers within a specified structure. Moreover, this doesn't happen by accident; these practices were made to cohere by actors such as marketers, Silicon Valley investors, and of course the people who created social media sites. In addition, other older practices of resistance appeared in interesting new forms, such as the labor strike that forced Wikipedia.com to become Wikipedia.org, or the now 30-year-old practices and ethics of the Free Software movement.

So I suppose I theorize how social media sites work by finding these historical, technical threads and tracing them to the present, looking to complicate some of the "newness" of these new sites, seeing in them longstanding assumptions about subjects, political economy, technologies, and knowledge production.

*"Also, pretending for a moment that you would set out to write a history of social media, what are (other) promising lines of inquiry that need to be explored?"

I don't think I do a complete job in my book by any means. There is a need for more histories of social media. I myself am interested in thinking more about engineering, especially the fusion of "engineering" with "social" as "social engineering" appears in different forms throughout the past few centuries. I am also interested in continuing to think about infrastructure in a genealogical way. And right now I am looking at how alternative social media (Diaspora, GNU Social, Crabgrass, N-1, and yes, Ello) fit into larger histories of alternative media.

Another angle might be digging into human-computer interaction, both the user-site relationship but also the coder-backend relationship, and how this operates alongside or complicates computer-computer interaction. I know there are histories of venture capital and Silicon Valley, but I'm sure many on this list will agree that there's a need for more histories of other tech centers around the world and how they articulate with contemporary Internet practices, not to mention empirical work on social media in specific contexts around the world. I know there are people working on histories and theorizations of sharing -- that seems like a fruitful direction, too. Indeed, taking the now generic practices of social media -- liking, sharing, friending, and perhaps especially following -- and tracing the historical threads that comprise them would be pretty fascinating, I believe.

So I will end on a selfish note: for those on the list, if you're doing (or have done) any of the above work, send it my way; I'd love to see it!

[1] Much has been written about Ello in the past few days, see for instance http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/ellos-anti-facebook-moment and https://medium.com/message/what-does-ethical-social-networking-software-look-like-315373c898ed; There are also good discussions about Ello going on on the AOIR list (http://listserv.aoir.org/listinfo.cgi/air-l-aoir.org) and Unlike-Us (http://listcultures.org/mailman/listinfo/unlike-us_listcultures.org).