Friday, September 26, 2014

’Ello Ello

There is a new social network in town: Ello. ’Ello Ello!

I’ve noticed enough people in my Facebook list joining Ello that I would definitely say it’s “trending.” And it turns out it was started by the guy who makes those nerdy-edgy plastic figurines you’ve probably seen on some programmer’s desk: Kidrobot.

I plan to give it a whirl as soon as somebody invites me in. Yes, that means Ello is trying to limit its growth rate by being invitation-only and limiting the number of invitations people get. It’s an old trick but it probably works, even if (sorry) it’s no longer cool to having a pocket full of invites.

Ello says that you are not a product.

But I see a few problems that lie in store for Ello.

1. Exponential Growth

Sooner or later they have to stop rationing invitations, and then since they are the buzz-child of the moment their growth will explode.

This is a really, really hard thing to handle even if you have a lot of money and great connections in the relevant nerd circles.

The normal way to deal with this is to take on venture funding so you can hire the experts and build up the infrastructure. But as soon as you take VC money you have somebody who can veto your Manifesto.

Now, a smart VC will let them burn money and follow their Manifesto and hope for an Instragram Moment, when Facebook fears all the cool kids will be on Ello and thus buys them for billions of dollars.

Either way, I don’t think there is a way to fund a conventional social network (which this is) without taking investment, and if they do then sooner or later they will sell out.

2. Scope Creep vs. Focus

Ello’s business model, such as it is, basically amounts to scope creep. I think they are seriously underestimating how hard it will be to just keep their minimalist feature set intact and usable at scale. If they want to add a bunch of features at the same time, that’s great, but then who’s going to keep the lights on?

In that sense it sounds like they want to be Craigslist — a lifestyle business that “goes viral” — but running a social network is a lot harder and more expensive than running Craig’s little apartments-and-prostitution site.

They also will need serious apps for iOS, Android and Windows Mobile. The iOS and Android apps are at least on their official feature backlog. Maybe Microsoft will write the Windows Mobile app for them.

In the best case you might have a group of talented programmers and designers who are willing to quit their jobs and work full-time for a year or two for equity. But sooner or later (most likely sooner) people need to get paid, and Ello needs real talent in two very high-end disciplines: mobile app engineering and scalability.

Again this comes down to the VC question. Ello has already taken a small seed investment, according to Crunchbase. But it’s not enough to buy full-time engineers, and until they can hire people they will have to choose between growth and features. Or perhaps I should say I hope they are smart enough to realize it’s one or the other.

3. Financial Sustainability

If by some miracle they manage to avoid the VC trap, how are they supposed to make money?

So far they talk about selling “premium features” but can you really operate a big social network on subscription revenue, with most of your users not paying anything? With server farms and a bunch of engineers who get market pay because they have to do the boring work? With a legal department that’s not going to be little pro-bono junior Lessigs?

I don’t buy it, not for a second. Even if enough of my friends went on Ello to make it worth splitting my activity into two networks (“cool” Ello vs “dull” Facebook) and even if I would pay $50/year for the service, I don’t think anybody else I know in Budapest would pay for it. Say that’s 200 people, now you have revenue of 25c/user/year, with which you can buy exactly nothing. I’m sure the “premium conversion” rate would be higher in the Bay Area but globally I don’t think 0.5% sounds pessimistic at all.

To put it another way: I don’t think Facebook is an ad platform because Zuckerberg is Evil, I think Facebook is an ad platform because there’s no other way to pay for a full-scale social network with all the features people want. That they’re very very good at being an ad platform, and utterly craven about their users’ privacy, accounts for their huge profits; but without ads per se I don’t think they could keep the blinkenlights on.

When the founder says things like “data is cheap” you have to wonder whether he’s been exposed to real-world, large-scale data-management problems. Of course the physical and virtual infrastructure required to launch a startup is much, much cheaper than it was back in 2004, but engineering talent is more expensive and a lot of the problems are vastly more complex. And sooner or later you have to scale up.

Never Say Never

Of course there is nothing new about these problems, just as there is nothing new about making the Anti-Facebook. But that’s no reason to not try.

I personally think the Next Big Social Thing will be less centralized, if only because Facebook sits in social networks where Google sits in web search: behind a massive capital-intensive barrier to entry, namely its server farms. To a lesser extent there is also the network effect on Facebook, but I think that’s easier to break than it seems. The rush of people wanting to try Ello points to the depth of dissatisfaction with Facebook; I would expect any reasonably convincing Anti-Facebook would benefit from that.

To be clear: if I were the Ello people I’d take this buzz and run as fast and far as I could with it. I’d get half a billion dollars in venture capital and make every investor sign off on my utterly unproved business model. I’d use the successful obstinance of Mark Zuckerberg as my template. I’d build a war chest big enough to run Ello according to my chosen principles for years and years and figure that sooner or later I’ll either figure out how to make money at it or find good money to chase the bad.

In today’s Silicon Valley investment climate I would even be a little surprised if they didn’t build a preposterously large war chest. And if they really could force their investors to sign on to the Manifesto, returns & exits be damned, then that would solve all three of the problems I metnioned above.

While I’m more than a little sceptical about their long-term prospects, maybe it doesn’t matter.

Maybe Ello is the next Facebook. Maybe Ello is the Anti-Facebook. Maybe Ello lives forever. Maybe it’s better to switch social networks every few years anyway.

I wish them the best. I know they will go through a lot of pain when they have to scale, but the very fact that it looks like they will have to scale puts them at the head of the pack.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What’s With the Crazy-Ass Startup Names?

It all started, I think, with Flickr: the cute, in-the-know jokey misspellings and then, soon enough, the simply crazy-ass names for Internet startups.

Full disclosure: I once worked on a site called Zulio (short version: Yelp meets Craigslist). One of the founders pulled the name out his ass, but it did have a nice ring to it. Certainly better than Yelp, which unfortunately is the perfect description of 99% of their content.

What Do These Seven Companies Do?

  1. Kinvey — Social Family Tree?
  2. Clinkle — Tomorrow’s Diapers, Made in Germany?
  3. Viggle Samwer brothers’ clone of
  4. Yerdle — Yelp for Yodelers?
  5. Reactr — Flickr for Physicists?
  6. Convercent — Low-Cost Language Training?
  7. Booodl — Next-Generaaaation Blooood Bank?

These are just some random examples found on CrunchBase. I thought I should make this a quiz, but I’m sure somebody else has already done that better than I could anyway. See this startup name generator for example. Though it’s old-school compared to these crazy new names.

Sometimes I wonder whether all the super-cool Budapest bar names look this way to people who don’t speak-a the magyar. The key difference of course being that for those of us who do the names are multifaceted wordplay, and as with much Hungarian humor they assume a sharp wit. Is there an equivalent hipsterese dialect in which these startup names are less ridiculous?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Aronofsky's Noah

I just finally got around to watching Noah, the sloshy epic starring Russel Crowe and directed by Darren Aronofsky.

It's about that Noah of course, the one with the Ark and the Flood and the affinity for Armenia.


They survive the flood. But, given that you exist, you probably knew that already. Read on if you're not afraid of lesser spoilers.

ET Kill Home

It had never occurred to me that Russel Crowe would have to build the whole stupid Ark by himself. Well, with the help of the womenfolk and Russel Brand, who plays his son Shim or Sham or whatever. The other son is Ham, though in fairness Logan Lerman as Ham probably hams it up less than any other character, human or beast.

So, provided by his grandfather Hannibal with a magic bean that instantly sprouts an entire forest, and thus an ample supply of wood, Noah Crowe seeks to build a very large barge.

But he's in a hurry, the rain's coming, the Ark is Really Really Big! What to do?

Why, enlist the help of giant many-armed barnacle-like Extraterrestrial Lumberjacks!

These also come in handy when, later on, Noah needs to repel a full-scale attack by the armies of Ray Winstone, the Representative of the Line of Cain and also the sole actor to be having any fun in this cash-colored deluge.

The ET Giants casually murder hundreds of humans before they realize that Death is Martyrdom, and when killed they will be beamed up to Heaven (thank you Scotty!). At that point they enthusiastically murder thousands of humans until the last ET Giant performs a sort of ritual rock-and-roll suicide and Noah is left to kill a few stragglers himself before the ship launches.

Redemptive Violence and the Rule of Man

This isn't the first time Noah turns a Gladiator trick. Throughout the movie we are repeatedly shown this self-appointed paragon of morality mood-swing his way into a murderous, but in the moment probably more or less justified rage.

Sooner or later it had to catch up to him. After all, he's spent almost as much energy as those ET Lumberjacks on a project that can only be described as genocide.

When he proposes that All Humans Must Die, including his own family (though on their own schedule), he comes close to losing his one remaining bond to Creation other than his sycophantic following of an imaginary, lunatic Creator: the love of his family.

When he proposes to murder his son's newborn twins, and only through his own weakness fails to make good on the promise, he does in fact more or less permanently lose that love.

Except he doesn't really. After hitting the bottle for a while on good old Ararat, everybody except Ham forgives him.

So here we have Noah: World's Greatest Asshole; mass murderer and negligent manslaughterer (womanslaughterer, at least); slow-motion suicidal genocidaire; self-loathing God-playing arbiter of life and death, dispensing a reprieve but only that for the family that sacrificed everything to go along with his crazy scheme. And yet they follow him as if he were G-d H-ms-lf, because in the given scheme of things that's what the Patriarch is.

A Christian Movie?

So this got me thinking. This movie is very casual about the mass murder taking place, as if it were in fact a divine action (we are expected to trust the ET Giants on that point). But it appears to condemn the overall violence and brutality leading up to the genocide itself, and also Noah's infanticidal machinations.

These things, however, all flow from the central establishing fact of the story: these people's (and ET Giants') Creator is a despotic and vengeful god, a god one must submit to even at one's own peril.

That sounds exactly like the god you always hear the Christians telling you they've replaced with a god of love and compassion.

Winstone's character has the clearest understanding of the Creator in this movie: he, a power-hungry Man in Full, giving and taking life, is living as he was created: in the image of the Creator.

Interestingly, while Ray Winstone-son-of-Cain is the villain in his relationship to Noah Crowe, he is without question the guy you'd want to follow if you had to choose between them. Noah has the ET Giants and the Big Bad Boat, but he would - he does - stand by and watch you drown. W-s-o-Cain would at least try to recruit you to his cause.

By any modern standard of ethics, Winstone's actions make more and more sense while Crowe's are more and more craven. Noah can't even plead self-defense as a justification for his evil deeds, since his plan is to die when the job is done. Or, anyway, in his typically self-righteous manner, live as long as he likes after the job is done and then someday get around to dying, yeah sure.

If, in a largely Christian country, you make a mass-market sci-fi movie based on an old Jewish legend, and in it you make it abundantly clear what a sick and bloodthirsty bastard the Creator is, are you not implicitly making an argument in favor of the Christian idea of God?

Of course that might be entirely coincidental. But I did not see anything much redeeming about the God in this movie other than arguably His ability to talk all the other lions into letting just these two be saved from the flood.

Science, Superstition and Aranofsky

It would be very interesting, but also very difficult and possibly not very entertaining to make a Noah's Ark movie in which there is no superstitious hocus-pocus at all.

Considering how crazy the traditional version of the story is, one might argue that Aranofsky's sci-fi touches are just minor adaptations to modern cinema. At least he doesn't try to make sense of Noah's age (six hundred, they tell me).

What fascinates me about Aranofsky's take is that everything falls neatly into one of exactly two categories: has a perfectly rational explanation vs. completely impossible sci-fi fantasy.

It's as if on the one hand he invites us to consider that Noah may be delusional and the Creator may not exist; but on the other hand he shows us Instant Forests and Glowing Angel Creatures (the souls of the ET Giants) and faith healing and Magic Glowing ET Fingers (apparently without irony).

I very much wish Aronofsky had gone all the way with the scepticism and presented the probably inevitable sci-fi elements as at least consistent with physics, so we could have concentrated on the twin problems facing Noah:

Is this really what the Creator wants me to do?

Am I insane?

Though of course in my world there is a third problem: If the Creator really wants me to do this, is he not my enemy?


I found Aronofsky's Noah to be blustery, often ridiculous, and more than a little confused about its moral position (and its accents).

But it did make me think. Was it worth the five bucks I spent renting it? Probably not. Would I watch it again? Only if somebody makes a Ray Winstone highlight reel.