Hello, Ello: A Look at the Next Big Thing*

Ben
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There’s a new social network in town — say hello to Ello. Still in beta and adding members on an invite-only basis (you can request one, good luck — Ello is reportedly getting 45,000 invite requests an hour), Ello has made headlines for its fist-in-the-air manifesto that heaps shame on the popular model for social platforms (particularly those named Facebook):

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.

Ello, in other words, promises not to sell, share or otherwise monetize your personal data or content. Ello’s design is intentionally minimalist, a thumbed nose at the visual busyness of Facebook’s wall of distraction model.  Users can be anonymous, a feature which piqued the public’s interest over the past few weeks as controversy around Facebook’s “real name” policy swelled in the LBGT community.

Bottom line: Ello is new and cool and exclusive (proof of coolness: there’s already a backlash). Facebook is your mom liking or commenting on everything you post.

So how will Ello make money?

From Business Insider’s interview with Ello founder Paul Budnitz:

Ello is firmly against the idea of selling your information to advertisers, so to make money, Ello’s founder, Paul Budnitz, says users will be able to purchase small, specific features that will help people build their own version of Ello that’s customized to their taste. “Ello is made to be simple, exactly what you need to have fun and be a great social network,” Budnitz told Business Insider. “It makes Ello really easy to use, and at the same time, it’s also the basis for the business model. When a network is very simple, people want specific features, and they’re willing to pay for those features.” So while the core Ello experience will “always remain free,” Budnitz says, people will be able to expand Ello’s capabilities, spending a few dollars for that new killer feature — whatever it is.

Yeah, but will it work?

Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post is skeptical. “For starters, large social networks — with servers and programmers and office space — do not run on dreams and fairy dust,” she writes in WaPo’s Intersect blog. “Typically they run on ads, which Ello doesn’t have. In lieu of ad revenue, Ello has suggested it might adopt the Radiohead approach — pay-what-you-like, or what-you-think-it’s-worth. It’s more or less the model employed by a number of individual bloggers, podcasters and livestreamers, as well as by public radio and nonprofit media — who may also sell ads and solicit grants or corporate donations to cover the vast swaths of budget that users don’t. The difference, of course, is that Ello won’t have grants or corporate donors, and the amount of money it costs to run a social network dwarfs the monetary needs of some guy on Twitch by a factor of a zillion to one.”

Although The Guardian raises a good point…

Ruby J. Murray of The Guardian breaks down Facebook’s core uses into two categories:

  1. Photos. “The only part of ourselves that (Facebook) lets us store, search and catalogue in any meaningful way,” Murray writes. “Considering that Facebook claims American users spend 40 minutes a day on the site – a whopping 243 hours a year – it’s no surprise that our past selves are starting to seem oppressive and unwieldy in their muumuus.”
  2. Interpersonal connections. Facebook ruined the joyful serendipity of posts from long-lost friends and relatives, however, through “News Feed algorithms and default filters to choose whose posts you saw…and boost the likelihood you’d see Britney Spears’ updates over your friends. Its overall effect was infantalising.”

Is Facebook — with its 1.3 billion users, its utility as a universal registration mechanism, its function as the scrapbook for much of the past eight to 10 years of our lives — really so bloated, unwieldy and depressing? Do people really care about the advertisements that much?

Maybe. “According to a survey conducted last year, 68% of respondents stated that advertising on social networks such as Facebook was ‘unacceptable,’ because they didn’t use social media as a purchasing tool,” Dan Shewan writes on the Wordstream blog. “Furthermore, less than 20% of consumers actually made a purchasing decision after seeing an ad on a social network, and only 9% did so more than once.”

This alleged sentiment does not seem to stop companies from buying ads. Facebook revenues are up 60.5 percent since last year and the company is set to roll out new, sophisticated “people-based marketing” ad technology.

But certainly privacy is a big issue! Or maybe not, according to Dewey: “It’s also unclear if the general Internet-browsing public — a.k.a., the very people Ello wants to save from Facebook and its ilk — really care about being saved from Facebook, at all. According to a 2013 Pew poll, 94 percent (!) of adult Internet users have done nothing to hide their personal data from Facebook, et al, which doesn’t exactly evidence the widespread adoption of Ello’s pay-what-you-like principles.”

So Ello probably is not a Facebook-killer?

Of course not. And, really, does it want to be? Ello is intentionally precious. It’s cool because it’s different and (seemingly) earnest (although some are a bit disturbed that Ello accepted $435,000 in venture capital). Most of the users I have seen on Ello are industry thought-leader types, the quasi-spiritual marketers who embrace buzz like it was their own dear mother.

Will Ello retain its indie cred once it goes mainstream? Will minimalist design be enough to keep the space hip once the bigots and SHOUTERS and all the people from your high school show up? Once the brands show up? Again, probably not.

Hey, what about those brands?

Apparently, they are allowed to create profiles (as Ben Breier points out, Sonos — and Paul Budnitz’s bike shop — are already on Ello).

Is there an inherent contradiction in allowing brands to create profiles on a site that eschews ads? The argument could be made.

Is it a bad idea to create brand pages on a site that eschews commercialism (or at least the perceived tawdry, tacky, over-the-top commercialism found on other social networks that Ello users are ostensibly avoiding)? Again, that argument could be made.

So did you sign up for Ello?

I did, and I do not get an invitation. I am not cool.

*For now.

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