I am curious (Ello)

ello logoOdds are this post will seem anachronistic six months from now, but I’m still excited about the flash of interest in social-media upstart Ello, inspired in large part by Facebook’s continued incomprehension of some sociological fundamentals.

As I’ve noted in a few forums, Ello has picked up new accounts started by tech-savvy users, people who use stage names and other pseudonyms, and even news sites in the wake of a dust-up over Facebook’s draconian enforcement of its real-names policy to exile drag queens and other users who employ monikers other than their birth names (disproportionately targeting the LGBT community).

Facebook VP of Product Chris Cox last week ran a post apologizing for the crackdown and attributing it to one user reporting hundreds of drag performers. While the rules will remain the same, Cox wrote, the company will apply them with more sensitivity.

Cox’s assurances may have worked. (And I actually believe he’s being honest in his dismay about the unintended consequences of Facebook’s rules and the company’s wish to do better.) Anecdotally, I’m now seeing less interaction between users I’m following and Ello’s admittedly Spartan feature set. 

But I’m still rooting for Ello to persevere, both because I’m enjoying the adventure of a new platform and the opportunity to think hard about Facebook’s critical mass in social media. Whatever Cox and Facebook consider the spirit of company policy, the letter remains very restrictive — and its enforcement hinges on enabling any user with any agenda to derail the account of another with a single confidential complaint.

If you haven’t yet read this account on the Daily Dot, try to ignore the misuse of “sewed” (sic) in the first paragraph; the story is actually a good one, comprising a discussion with the person who apparently reported all the drag performers and other pseudonymous users recently banned by Facebook.

If s/he’s for real, the user (who adopted the Twitter handle @RealNamePolice to pursue this vigilante campaign) was on the hunt for “secular sodomites” and used Facebook’s practice of suspending users based on anonymous complaints. RealNamePolice tells the Dot how s/he trawled strangers’ accounts to find names, then reported them all to Facebook — which promptly brought the hammer down on all of them.

Now, Facebook may say it was a simple gaffe to swallow this malicious user’s line. Personally, I’m suspicious that’s the case. After all, Facebook invested weeks of pushback in the face of intense media and even political pressure before announcing it was a simple misunderstanding caused by one bad actor. Really?

Its willingness to trust RealNamePolice over an entire community of users makes even clearer the shortcomings of Facebook’s damascene moment: It’s not addressing the real problem.

Facebook’s real-names policy — narrow and rigid though it is — is less of a problem than its anonymous-finkery policy. How many of your friends have been suspended at one time or another because some unknown friend of a Facebook friend chose to report that person for obscure reasons? In a story about Facebook’s secret-policing, the New York Times reported that Facebook had suspended the ACLU (!) for 24 hours because it posted a photo of a bare-breasted bronze statue in a discussion of public art in Kansas.

Once you’ve been fingered by another Facebook user, you’re guilty until proven innocent … And the whole enterprise takes on a Kafkaesque quality. Assuredly, Facebook is allowed to run its railroad as it chooses; a private company’s social network isn’t a free-speech zone, and Zuckerberg’s boys can do what they want. That doesn’t mean we have to take it, though (unless Facebook is the only game in town).

Selective enforcement over real names is meaningless as long as people can still be suspended for arbitrary reasons because unidentified people with murky motives have dimed them out. Facebook either needs to require complainants to identify themselves just like any other user or give users facing suspension a chance to defend themselves. If not, the whole system is still vulnerable to the kind of abuse RealNamePolice just inflicted.

Ello offers pleasures of its own. I’m getting used to the limited interface, and I’m positively enjoying meeting new people and working together to make the most of this beta platform. Whether it continues to thrive or falls by the wayside, though, I’m newly committed to a varied diet of social media … Facebook is still worth my time, but I’m not going to entrust my online presence to the people who brought us this recent real-names debacle.

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