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Sex and Queer Culture: Can Ello Succeed Where Facebook Won't Go?

WellEllo

The Interplay is a special bi-weekly series exploring the intersections of sex, pop culture, and current events.

BY CHARLES PULLIAM-MOORE

Last week everyone seemed to suddenly begin pushing Ello, artist Paul Budnitz’s style-centric social media platform. Ello’s major selling points--a clean design, pseudo-exclusivity, and a lack of advertisements--made it an obvious alternative to services like Facebook or Twitter. Most of the coverage about Ello, including our own, highlighted the contrast between the service’s “come as you are” ideology and Facebook’s recent doubling down on its “real name policy.”

A vocal contingent of the drag community is protesting Facebook’s naming policies and adding some credence to the idea that Facebook just isn’t as “cool” as it used to be. That being said, one-fifth of the world’s population logs onto Facebook every month, and the site is projected to control almost 20% of U.S. mobile ad market by the end of the year. As tone-deaf as Zuckerberg and co. may have been in their policing of online identities, Facebook, contrary to popular belief, is doing just fine.

Tumblr_mvrapdFibC1qz8q0ho1_500For all of the grand proclamations of user-empowerment made in its manifesto, Ello looks a lot like the social networks that came before it, when looked at objectively. Profiles are styled in a similar fashion to Twitter’s, and Ello’s endless scrolling bears a striking resemblance to Tumblr’s primary dashboard interface.

Despite thriving on the idea of being edgy and anti-ad, a number of high-profile brands (like Sonos and Netflix) have staked out spots in Ello. Even more interesting are the questions being raised about Ello’s early venture capital funding, something seemingly at odds with it anti-establishment ethos.

And yet in spite of all that Ello is growing.

Ello doesn’t seem to have a means of determining a user’s sexual orientation, but Budnitz has said that his team has seen a particular spike in new LGBT users. According to Budnitz, Ello’s LGBT userbase is playing a “particularly helpful [role] in shaping their development going forward,” which could mean a number of different things.

In the past non-dating social networks designed with gay men in mind have tried--and generally failed--to carve out a unique space for themselves. Fab.com, the one-time wunderkind of daily deals, began in 2010 as Fabulis, a gay Facebook clone without an obvious business model. Fabulis’s decision to reinvent itself as an e-commerce hub says a lot about the viability of a “gay social network.”

So what is it, then, that Ello is doing to solidify itself as the queer-friendly anti-Facebook? Well for starters, it’s pro-porn.

Sex-positive tech journalist Violet Blue recently took to Twitter to warn her followers that an early version of Ello’s terms of service prohibited posting work-unfriendly content. Justin Gitlin, one of Ello’s lead developers quickly responded to Blue, asserting that Ello’s position on racier content was quickly evolving.

Screenshot 2014-09-29 09.14.32“We don’t have a problem with porn at all,” Ello creator Paul Budnitz clarified to BetaBeat “But we would have a problem with (adult content) that encourages people to hurt each other, or anything that has to do with children.”

As timely as comparisons to Facebook may be, Ello would have a much better shot at becoming the social for edgy, artistic gays by borrowing from Tumblr. Though Tumblr has made a name for itself for being a lightweight, customizable blogging tool for the masses, the service owes a large part of its success to its highly active community of pornography curators.

Tumblr hosts a wide variety of mature content ranging from hardcore, animated gifsets to erotic prose and poetry. Diving into Tumblr’s depths proves not only that Rule 34 is very real, but also that vibrant, engaged non-sexually explicit communities can exist on the same platform as the raunchiest of skin flicks. Straddling that gap could be the key to Ello’s future success.

Queer Young Cowboys, a St. Louis-based micropress, specializes in smart, stylish literary raunch. QYC creator Johnny Murdoc explained that his interest in Ello went beyond seeing an opportunity to grow his brand.

Screenshot 2014-09-29 16.40.35“I know I'm getting a more authentic report from the writers and artists I follow, and not just the narratives or work that fit within guidelines,” he said. “Guidelines have never been friendly to queer creators, especially when it comes to sexual content.”

Artists working in adult spaces, Murdoc says, have worked around the limitations imposed by platforms like Facebook and Instagram, by tailoring their content to fit within acceptable parameters. But that ingenuity comes, at least in part, with a degree of creative censorship.

“There may be a post about some new thing, but they're never showing the new thing, especially with visual artists.” he described. “I know some creators who are dogged by people who report any risqué content, and that leads them to talk about their work in other venues rather than risk being shut down.”

Projects like QYC aren’t uncommon, but all too often their signal gets lost in the social media noise as a result of having to contort their messages to fit within narrowly defined standards of acceptability. How many more independent films like Travis Matthews’s I Want Your Love and In Their Room might have a chance to flourish if only their creators were given a central, social hub in which to share and spread their ideas?

Whether Ello intends to become that hub remains to be seen, but being known as the digital epicenter of risqué, avant-garde content creation certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.


Minimalist Social Network 'Ello' Grows As Drag Queens Rally Against Facebook: VIDEO

Ello

Ello, a social network created by a group by a collective of artists and programmers, is positioning itself as the lightweight, minimalist alternative to Facebook that has no interest in selling you ads. The site, which is currently in beta and invite-only, isn’t exactly new to the scene. Ello first launched in March of last year, months before revelations about the NSA’s extensive collection of American telecom information. Ello introduced itself with a sign-up list and a straightforward manifesto that explained its creators’ vision:

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.

Like many other fledgling social networks positioning themselves opposite of giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, Ello’s initial growth was slow, steady, and fueled almost entirely by word of mouth. In the past week, however, Ello has seen exponential growth in its userbase for a number of easily identifiable reasons.

Ello began sending out invitations to its waiting list in earlier this July a month after Facebook was revealed to have been subtly manipulating its users for research purposes. Twitter, faced similar backlash following reports of its plans to begin algorithmically modifying users’ timelines to create a more tailored experience. Most recently Facebook drew the ire of many members of the LGBT community for its decision to enforce a “real name” policy forbidding users from creating profiles with non-legal names. A number of prominent drag performers, many of whom ran Facebook pages under their drag names, expressed their concern with the policy.

Sister roma“I use this site to keep up with friends and simply don't want employers or crazy stalker people to log on and search me.” Sister Roma [pictured right] of the San Francisco chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence explained to SFist. “I want my friends to find me...I detest the idea of having a fan page. I'm not fucking Britney Spears. I have friends, not fans.”

Google Plus backpedaled on a similar policy earlier this year after a number of its users reported being outed to their social circles against their will. Unlike Google Plus, for whom its naming policy was the latest in a long line of social media gaffes, Ello’s creators have made it clear that users are free to inhabit the platform however they like.

“Artists, bloggers, people who are concerned about privacy, people who have had problems with stalkers, celebrities, and members of the LGBTQ community sometimes choose not to use their real names — out of personal preference, or to protect themselves,” Paul Budnitz, one of Ello’s creators, told BetaBeat.  “There is no reason for us to require people to use real names.“Ello doesn’t mine or sell data or have ads, so we invite people to be who they want to be.”

Ello’s sudden spike in popularity has drawn the public’s attention much in the same way that Diaspora, a crowdfunded social networking project, did in 2012. Like Ello, Diaspora marketed itself as an independent platform that empowered users to take control of their data without administrative oversight. Diaspora recently found itself back in the media spot after members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) began using the platform specifically because their activities could not be tracked or stopped by Diaspora’s moderation team.

Whether Ello manages to maintain its status as an exclusive, free-for-some outlet for digital art and expression remains to be seen, but demand for invitation codes remains high.

And if you missed Brigitte Bidet's catchy smackdown of Facebook's anti-drag queen policy "WTF, Zuck?" you can check it out AFTER THE JUMP...

Bidet

Continue reading "Minimalist Social Network 'Ello' Grows As Drag Queens Rally Against Facebook: VIDEO" »


Is Egypt Surveilling Social Media To Hunt Down Gay People? - VIDEO

Egyptian surveillance

Concerns are mounting in Egypt that authorities will use new online monitoring software to hunt down LGBT people, reports Buzzfeed.

Earlier this month, Egyptian authorities arrested nine men for "debauchery" but later concluded that "the men tested negative for homosexuality."

Using U.S. technology, Egypt is now monitoring online communications, giving the government an unprecedented ability to comb through data from Skype, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and Viber.

In recent weeks, Egypt’s LGBT community has issued warnings to avoid using Grindr after rumors spread that officials were using the app to arrest gay men.

Although Egyptian officials have said their monitoring of online activity will focus on preventing terrorist attacks, one Interior Ministry official said the current mandate was “much broader”:

“We are looking at any conversation, any interaction, we might find worrying or would want to keep a closer eye on. We are watching conversations between Islamists, or those who discuss Islamism. We are watching communities, which we consider at risk.”

EgyptThe official went on to say that those taking part in “debauchery” or “homosexual acts” would be watched “for the protection of Egypt.”

He added that although he wasn’t familiar with Grindr, there were “dozens of Facebook groups” used by the LGBT community that are being watched.

Gen. Hany Abd el Lateef, a spokesman for Egypt’s Interior Ministry, denied that the government plans to monitor citizens’ private lives.  

However, a copy of the tenders issued by the Interior Ministry which specifies the type of online communications it will be searching for suggests otherwise.  The list includes:

  • Blasphemy and skepticism in religions
  • Spreading of rumors and intentional twisting of facts
  • Sarcasm
  • Pornography, looseness, and lack of morality

Providing the service to the Egyptian government, See Egypt is the sister company of the U.S.-based Blue Coat.

Ali Miniesy, the CEO of See Egypt, said that the company had been contracted to provide Egypt’s State Security with the system, and to teach officials how to comb through data gathered from email accounts and social media sites.

He added that although the software can be used to penetrate social media and other software, it is a system similar to that used by most Western governments, including the United States.

According to Eva Blum-Dumontet, an advocacy officer with the U.K.-based NGO Privacy International:

“This new software makes it very easy to target anyone, en masse. The user simply says, ‘I want to look for atheists, or homosexuals,’ and the company gets all the data. It’s extremely easy.

"There is a difference between what you do on social media and what you do in the real world. The concern is that people who are not necessarily our protesting would suddenly be on the radar of the Egyptian authorities because they liked a status on Facebook or retweeted something.”

Egyptian Human Rights groups filed a lawsuit on June 17 alleging that the system used by Egypt “threatens private life and public freedom.”  However, the lawsuit could take years to work its way through the courts, and in the meantime the See Egypt technology will continue to be used.

Watch a report on this story, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Is Egypt Surveilling Social Media To Hunt Down Gay People? - VIDEO" »


Facebook Refuses To Change Name Policy After Meeting with Drag Queens, Temporarily Restores Deleted Profiles

Mtg

After the social network begin enforcing its 'real names' policy, requiring that all users go by their legal name online, drag queens who found their accounts shut down were in an uproar and successfully set a meeting with Facebook to discuss the policy. That meeting, also attended by openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rudy Campos, took place today and did not result in any change on Facebook's part. The AP reports:

Facebook said it will keep the accounts active for two weeks so people can decide whether to provide their real names.

Several drag queens and Supervisor David Campos said at a news conference at San Francisco City Hall that they are disappointed that Facebook didn't change its policy after the two sides met for about an hour Wednesday. Campos said Facebook has agreed to another meeting.

According to The Bay Area Reporter, Campos also added, "After an hour of discussion, we have yet to hear from Facebook they agree the policy is wrong.”

Meanwhile, Sister Roma, one of the most vocal drag queens who has been opposing Facebook's policy, said she was ready to mount a large-scale protest if necessary, saying, "We're always ready to go." For the drag queens and for Mr. Campos, Facebook's policy represents a real danger for many at risk minorities:

"They're claiming they're trying to create a safe environment," but [Roma] and others have heard from people who have escaped abusive spouses and "the only outlet they have is through Facebook."

[Heklina] said safety is a concern for her. "I have crazy family members" who she doesn't want to be able to find her. [...]

Advocates said that LGBT employees at Facebook have been pushing their cause, and Roma said, "There are people on both sides of this issue within the company.” [...]

"This issue is way bigger than a bunch of drag queens complaining because we can't use our stage names," Roma said in a news release. "This policy is discriminatory and potentially dangerous to a variety of Facebook users, including abused and battered women, bullied teens, political activists, sex workers, and especially members of the transgender community; all examples of people who use pseudonyms to ensure their safety and privacy." 

(Photo via Twitter)


Twitter Crowdsources Manhunt for Philadelphia Hate-Crime Attackers, Suspects Turn Themselves In: VIDEO

Suspects

Yesterday, we told you about a brutal hate crime that took place in Philadelphia's City Center. Last night, Philadelphia Police released a surveillance video that appeared to show a group of up to 12 people they identified as suspects in the assault. Shortly thereafter, the video spread like wildfire on social media and resulted in the suspects being identified. Philadelphia Magazine reports: 

PhillyWithin hours, former Real Housewives of New Jersey castmate Greg Bennett tweeted this photo [pictured right] that he claims — because of similarities in clothing — includes some of the alleged suspects in the hate crime that happened on Thursday in Center City. 

Not long after, police were contacted by lawyers for the suspects. 6ABC reports: "Late Tuesday night, Action News has learned attorneys for some members of the group have called police. They are making arrangements to bring their clients in for questioning on Wednesday."

Twitter user @FanSince09 also played a pivotal role in identifying the suspects. He was able to identify the restaurant shown in the background of the photo tweeted by Bennett and also used Facebook check-ins to help identify the attackers. 

No arrests have been made, but Philadelphia police are crediting Twitter and social media users with helping to solve this case.

Philadelphia native and NPR social media guru Melody Kramer documented how the crowdsourced Twitter sleuthing went down using Storify. Check out her excellent timeline along with a news report that shows the surveillance video in question and includes an interview with @FanSince09, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Twitter Crowdsources Manhunt for Philadelphia Hate-Crime Attackers, Suspects Turn Themselves In: VIDEO" »


Facebook Agrees To Meet With Drag Community Members Following 'Real Name' Controversy

Heklina_drag_queen_performing

In response to a planned protest at their headquarters, representatives from Facebook have agreed to meet with Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and David Campos, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, about Facebook’s recent crackdown on the use of drag names.

Hundreds of drag queens found their public Facebook profiles deactivated last week after Facebook began to enforce its rules stating that all users must attach their birth names to personal pages. While members of the drag community were not explicitly targeted by the crackdown, drag queens seems to have been disproportionately affected given their tendency to embody their personae as public figures.

“I’ve had this name for 20 years now,” San Francisco-based performer Heklina explained to Tech Crunch “I walk down the street and people say ‘Hi Heklina.’ People know me by my drag name.”

Heklina claimed that every single drag performer that she knew in the Bay Area had been affected by Facebook’s enforcement of the policy, robbing them of the ability to keep their drag lives separate from their personal ones.

“This is like in the 1950’s when drag queens would perform at the club and then had to quickly change into their boy clothes after to keep from getting harassed,” she said, citing the many queens that were effectively forced to out themselves.

Initially Facebook responded by suggesting that drag performers attach their aliases to profiles featuring their actual names or create fan pages for their characters as an alternative. Fan pages, says Heklina, often don’t really capture what all it means to be a drag fixture in a local community.

“While many drag queens are 'out' about who they are, not all drag queens have that luxury," San Francisco Boardmember Scott Weiner wrote in a Facebook post. "Preventing drag queens from using the names that actually define who they are also puts a number of people in the untenable position of having to choose between telling the world that they’re drag queens and abandoning Facebook for their drag personas.”


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