Turning inner space into outer space

June 20, 2015

If you're into creativity, Ello could be your new Twitter

A Photoshopped image posted to Ello.

Twitter is under a lot of pressure from Wall Street to follow the footsteps of Facebook and become an Internet money-making machine. It’s been like that for the past couple of years.

So when CEO Dick Costolo wasn’t able to deliver the goods, he had to step down.

Despite being a household name, Twitter is not as popular as you might think. Statistics I’ve seen show that at most 20 per cent of people have an account. This compares with the mighty Facebook, which boasts rates as high as 80 per cent in some countries.

Twitter has been trying desperately to get more people signed up, but growth has been meagre at best. It doesn’t help that some of its attempts at increasing revenue — such as video ads — have turned people off. And then there’s the constant battle with trolls who target users they don’t like with barrages of hate-filled messages.

So it shouldn’t come as surprise that there are entrepreneurs who believe they can do Twitter better. One recent effort was called As a mainstream social network, it didn’t last long. It has now morphed into a platform for software developers. That makes sense, since it was mainly developers who were using it anyway.

Which brings us to Ello. This Twitter alternative has been invitation-only for several months, and is now open to the public with an app in the iPhone App Store. An Android version is expected soon. Or you can use their website.

It’s been getting a lot of attention in the tech media, so of course I signed up to see what all the palaver was about. My first impression? You can really tell it was created by artists.

Yes, what was to software developers, Ello is to creative types.

To get started I followed some topics that looked like they might be interesting — tech, writing, architecture and design came closest among the choices that were presented. So now I can scroll through my feed and see the boundless creativity and inspiration of those who post to those curated topics.

Perhaps the biggest difference from Twitter is that there is no limit on the length of posts. You might find an entire short story or a chapter from a novel. On Saturday morning, someone claiming to be an androgyne posted 11 selfies in various states of undress so we could see all the tattoos. This person gets points for being avant garde, and the pictures were indeed within the bounds of good taste, but I suspect the audience for this sort of thing must be niche at best.

It can add up to quite a workout for your thumb if you’re not in the mood for reading a short story or viewing tattoos and want to move past them. On the other hand, I did stop to admire and appreciate some Photoshopped images of interlocking cars. Clearly, these were done by a person with talent.

You can also see the influence of artists in the choice of font, which reminds me of the letters from a typewriter but not monospaced. (Correction: it actually is monospaced, as it would be with a typewriter.) It’s nice to look at, but — to my eyes — hard to read on an iPhone. If you want to give Ello a try, you might be better off using their website. The legibility is better, the pictures are much bigger, and it’s easier to scroll with a mouse.

Ello bills itself as beautiful and ad-free. And indeed both the app and the site are aesthetically pleasing. I’m not sure, though, how far this will go toward enticing new users. Twitter’s app and website aren’t exactly eyesores. And if you don’t like the ads, you can use a third-party app such as Tweetbot.

Meanwhile, Facebook has long been a jumbled mess filled with annoying auto-start video ads — yet it remains the unchallenged juggernaut of social media.

The big question is whether Ello can succeed where Twitter — at least according to investors — has failed. Ello is apparently going to try to make money by setting up a system where users can buy and sell from each other. This could be a real strength, because for starters many of the current users would love a forum for selling their art. Plus, it could bring in more people interested in a market for their wares. Ello would make money by taking a cut of the transactions.

I’ve already been followed by an antique dealer. Hmm. I wonder why . . .