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Dec. 1, 2014, 10 a.m.
Audience & Social

Finance media’s hottest club is Ello

Business reporters flocking to the platform won’t radically change journalism, but it’s worth asking why users gather where they do.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Ello, the anti-Facebook social networking site founded by a handful of graphic designers. Though initially meant to be a closed experiment in network building, Ello grew popular due to its anti-advertising, anti-data mining stance. As Kyle Chayka wrote for Gizmodo not long ago, Ello also fits into the Web 1.0 trend, driven both by nostalgia for the aesthetic of decades old web design and a desire for respite from the age of massive social platforms. From Chayka’s story:

“People have more fun when they can be vulnerable and open,” [Paul] Ford explained to me in an email. Especially when they “aren’t bracing themselves for a bunch of shrieking assholes to violently weigh in on every possible thing in order to score more virtual rage points.” The appeal of a tighter content ecosystem is clear when any public tweet might be singled out by an internet terror machine like Gamergate.

Though the quieter environments can be a more productive place to talk, the flip side of that is they’re inherently more exclusive; Ello, for example, is still invite-only.

With its retro-trendy, whitespace-heavy design, Ello has been popular among designers, artists, photographers, filmmakers, and other professionals whose brands are heavy on visuals. But as the network has grown, so has the diversity among subgroups. Journalism professor Jay Rosen, for example, has been blogging on the platform with regularity.

But the first journalistic subgroup for whom Ello really hit home is finance journalists — at least a little ironic, given the site’s origins. Earlier this fall, journalists like Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal started jokingly referring to the growing community of business writers on the site as “Finance Ello.”

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Weisenthal only joined Bloomberg recently from Business Insider, and was briefly without a platform to publish on between jobs. For a high-metabolism reporter, that can be a frustrating situation to be in, one which open platforms like Ello provide an interim solution for.

jobs day

Since jobs day (which is like a monthly election day for finance media) Weisenthal has been actively encouraging other business writers on Twitter to join the new platform, offering invitations, promoting the work of other journalists, and even pushing people to follow the Bloomberg News account.

In fact, as of late November, he’s actively hiring someone to run Bloomberg’s Ello (and Twitter and Facebook) accounts:

Through his efforts, uptake has sharply increased. Finance journalists who have migrated to Ello include other Bloomberg employees, Wall Street Journal correspondents, Business Insider writers, Financial Times reporters, Economist bloggers and more. There, they write notes with charts about breaking finance news, share links to published stories and comment on each other’s analysis.

In an email, Wiesenthal told me he considers Finance Ello 80 percent serious and 20 percent joke. “The joke part is that it’s kind of a novelty to post in a totally new place that at first blush doesn’t offer *that* many advantages over what exists,” he says.

Indeed, there’s little extraordinary about Ello. It’s unlikely to become the next huge traffic driving platform, or change how most journalists do business. But it’s interesting to observe how people in the profession gather online and use new digital tools to communicate about their work.

For one thing, Ello lacks the character limits of Twitter, which makes it an ideal home for blogpost-length writing without the barrier of having to actually start your own blog — not unlike Medium’s pitch to writers.

With a baked-in community of users and relatively functional comment threads, Ello makes sense as a place to gather for thoughtful conversation.

“You can do a post the length of a tweet. Or you can do something longer,” says Weisenthal. “And then it’s very easy to see a conversation grouped around one post, rather than a sprawling thread that can be difficult to track.”

Semi-private — or semi-private feeling — spaces like Ello tend to allow for more candid conversation than hugely popular social sites, which is part of their draw. Reporters see the platform as a safe space to test out new theories. For example, Business Insider reporter Shane Ferro wrote a somewhat personal Ello post about transitioning from a job in legacy media to a job at a startup and the cultural differences in those two environments.

“It’s nice to have a space that feels a little bit quieter, and which lends itself to longer thoughts,” says Weisenthal. “I love Twitter, but it can be a shouty place, and Finance Twitter tends to be less shouty than, say, Politics Twitter. So the peace and quiet of Ello is nice.”

Another benefit of Ello over other platforms is the ease with which graphics can be included in posts, according to Weisenthal. “Finance and econ talk is often greatly helped by the ability to include tables and charts within the discussion, which Ello does naturally,” he says. On Twitter, images take up precious character space; on Ello, that’s not a problem.

Matthew Boes covers the Federal Reserve for Bloomberg; he’s been taking considerable advantage of Ello’s graphically-inclined interface. (His embrace of Ello is likely not unrelated to his boss’s — Weisenthal’s — enthusiasm.)

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Ello doesn’t function seamlessly for everyone. Designer Jeffrey van der Goot wrote on Medium about the ways in which the site’s weighting of design over function prevent it from being widely usable. In a post on The Toast called “You’re Not Stupid; Ello is Badly Designed,” Elena Palmer details the frustration of trying to discover and talk to friends on the platform.

The difficulties of using Ello for fast and efficient communication are not lost on the members of Finance Ello. Bloomberg’s Matt Levine wrote a post on Ello about what he thinks the site is good for — talking to people, rather than linking to external publisher content. But in a reply, user Lew Burton expressed his frustration with the site.

“I like Ello, but it kinda feels like my old bike where the kickstart never worked and I would miss the early ferry,” he writes. “I find that the flow is awkward, I want to be alerted to conversations being updated, and don’t get that here.”

Despite the initial splash of Ello’s release, it doesn’t feel like the mainstream conversation has moved there. The company hasn’t released numbers on active users, but early analysis suggests that only a small fraction of Ello’s comparatively small user base posts regularly on the site.

But it’s possible that for niche communities like Finance Ello, the platform’s clunkiness and small user base is more feature than bug. After all, that’s what lends the site its air of privacy: As with so many things, if it were easier to use or more popular, it wouldn’t be as fun.

Cale Weissman, a reporter for Business Insider Intelligence, agrees that Ello’s alternative, artisanal aesthetic could be part of the draw. Recall the 20 percent of Finance Ello that’s a joke — maybe part of it is the irony of a bunch of reporters who obsess over markets and jobs rates and stock indexes electing somewhat arbitrarily to descend on a design-forward social media platform that has rejected the primary way social networks make money.

Whether you see the humor in that or not, the really funny thing is that Finance Ello might actually be taking off. “I think if anyone actually knew what it took to get people to move platforms en masse they’d be really rich,” Weisenthal says. “Still seems like kind of a mystery to me.”

POSTED     Dec. 1, 2014, 10 a.m.
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