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Op-ed: Ello, Is It a Gay Facebook You're Looking For?

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I just scrolled through my Facebook feed and this is what I saw: an ad for Virgin Airlines, a video of Snooki and JWoww, two kittens, three bragging vacation posts, and a story on Shia LaBeouf grabbing Alan Cumming’s ass. Count me among those experiencing Facebook fatigue.

This malady extended to many in my queer-heavy feed recently, when Facebook forced drag performers to use their legal names on the site or risk getting booted. Thankfully, Facebook wised up and agreed to allow the queens to use “the authentic name they use in real life.” But before this Silicon Valley compromise was signed, many LGBTs were ready to tell Mark Zuckerberg to piss off. They’d found a new social media hobby, one that lets you call yourself Rachel Tension or Fred or South Kardashian West. And they called this Ello.

There was excitement in the air. Invite-only Ello wouldn’t mine your feed for advertising revenue and it wouldn’t allow homophobic trolls to ruin your day with slurs. A new world! But quicker than you can say Google Plus, it was gone from the public conversation. The gay talk of Twitter and Facebook status updates for a solid three days, Ello was suddenly a side note, a future joke for when VH1 broadcasts I Love the 2010s.

Of course, Ello, which sports a clean design and a noble mission, could still rise up and challenge the big three social sites; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Whatever the new thing turns out to be, it’s clear there is a hunger for it to arrive — soon. People want something fresh, something exciting, something to cut through the clutter. But was the attention lavished on Ello by LGBTs indicative that we, especially, want something new? Something all our own?

Sure, my feed is pretty gay already, but wouldn’t it be even more fun if an Ab Fab joke was universally understood or a post about marriage equality didn’t cost you friends or followers? You could never see a post again about Mike & Molly; never see a picture of someone holding up a dead fish. There would be lots of old Stevie Nicks videos. It would be a club — like a virtual gay one to replace the brick-and-mortars slowly going AOL.

That optimism lasted about as long as most relationships forged online (or at a club). I soon questioned the ability of a predominantly gay social media endeavor to sustain itself without turning into a hook-up tool. Most of my friends’ Facebook profiles contain partners or puppies, but let’s be honest, a gay Facebook would undoubtedly feature innumerable pecs, packages, and pokes. That’s not wrong, but it’s not what got me excited about a gay Facebook.

If the endeavor could attract a true cross section of LGBT life: men, women, including those who identify as trans, maybe it could be something more than prurient. But would the advantage of having a niche social media site soon give way to something even more specific? Lesbians, gay men, bi folks, and trans people could start hungering for posts and photos even more relevant to their experience. Maybe a social media site for bisexual trans men would eventually launch, then a site for lesbians who knit and lean Libertarian gets start-up funds, and so on and so on. It could eventually pigeonhole itself out of business.

All these hypothetical sites would be open for anyone to sign up — just like Ello — but the target audience would certainly be skewed one way; segregation would be part of the appeal. While that offers the aforementioned advantages, it disregards one of the few remaining advantages of Facebook: even if our feed is mostly LGBT, almost all of us have “friends” who encompass a wide cross section of humanity, everyone from your spouse to your senile uncle to your conservative college roommate. That exposure helps us, like when you realize someone you’ve long admired voted differently from you, and that it’s OK. On the flip side, sharing our experiences — say, turning our profile pics purple on Spirit Day — humanizes us to those who don’t encounter openly gay people during their typical day.

Sadly, I don’t have enough straight friends in my Facebook feed. Not only do I work for gay media, but my worldview is skewed even more LGBT because of who I interact with and follow on Facebook, which I still peruse at least three times a day (down from seven or eight a few years ago). It’s like I live on the periphery of a virtual gay ghetto, where my perception of safety and acceptance is altered. If I moved to the beating heart of that online gayborhood, it would be even less of a reflection of the larger world that I actually occupy physically.

There is another option should a Gaybook ever get off the ground: Keep a profile on both sites. Nah, forget that — too much work. For now, I’ll stick with the BuzzFeed quizzes and Amanda Bynes videos and wait for something better to come along.

 

NEAL BROVERMAN is a columnist for The Advocate and the editor in chief of Out Traveler. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman

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