Meet Ello, the Social Network Where You Are Not The Product

Ello Logo

There is a new social network that has exploded into the internet's awareness recently, and that network is called Ello. Built by seven people based in Boulder, Colorado, Ello is an ad-free social network that is currently invite-only.

What makes it different from the social networks out there now is that the people behind it are interested in finding ways to make money that don't involve selling user data to other companies. In other words, unlike Google and Facebook and Twitter, which have tried (with varying degrees of success), you are not the product.

Ello has posted a manifesto already, discussing how its approach differs from that of existing networks. From the page:

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.

Using Ello

It's not the prettiest site, nor is it the easiest to figure out, at least at first. But once you find your way around and configure your profile, it's pretty easy to check your updates, and see what other people have posted.

Kellys user page on Ello.Kelly's user page on Ello. Covered in Muppets. What a surprise.
Click to embiggen.

There are a few options, such as sending a private message by using two @ signs at the beginning of a username. There is an account called WTF which is where official information gets posted, whether it's tips or how to report abuse. There appears to be no limit to the number of characters in a post, they can include pictures and videos, and are formatted using Markdown.

Replies are handled by clicking on the ellipsis (three periods in a row) under each post, next to the timestamp and the number of people who have seen the post. Once clicked, a text box pops up with the original user's name already filled in, ready for your reply. There are no apps of any sort at the moment, but the site works well on mobile devices so you don't have to go without.

As in the early days of most networks, it can be sparse. For some people there may be virtually nobody there, or only a few people, making for a limited stream. Paired with the newness of the network, it may not be a "habit" for people to spend time there yet, so updates might not be frequent.

Ellos main page after signing inEllo’s friends page after signing in.
Click for larger image.

Every new social network right now has to compete with Facebook, just as Facebook had to compete with MySpace when it opened up to the public. Given the privacy and other PR missteps from Facebook, it seems like it should be easy to build an appealing alternative. Remember, even though Facebook is doing that no users like, those things (ads, data mining) are making money. When another network claims to forsake those things, for all the right reasons, that network is clearly doomed.

Privacy

Part of what has spiked interest in Ello over the last couple of weeks is Facebook's enforcement of its "real names" policy, which has primarily caused issues for drag queens who use a stage name and have discovered their pages have been closed. There are many reasons someone may wish to use a different name, from recognition (do you know James Newell Osterberg, Jr.? How about Iggy Pop?) to abuse victims who don't want to be stalked to people with jobs where exposing personal information could put them at risk. 

Add this to the routine erosion of user privacy from Google and Facebook's outright manipulation of data, and since it's been going on for years people have had just about enough. Which makes something like Ello even more appealing, it's entirely possible people are now fed up enough with Facebook to give a friendly "Hello sailor!" to any new network.

Don't Write It Off Yet

Here's the thing: As best I can tell, the people who built Ello aren't doing this as their only jobs. Two of them have a design firm in Boulder, CO, and it doesn't look like they intend to close that in favor of moving full-time to Ello. If this is the case, they don't have to worry as much about taking more funding, it may end up being the sort of thing where features or improvements might come a bit more slowly because their other jobs take priority. If true, that's not necessarily a bad thing, and I'd gladly trade this for the current Facebook experience.

As when Twitter was new, and MySpace before that, and Friendster before that, it's an odd echo chamber in the short term, and in the long term it's difficult to say what will happen. Some are already writing Ello off as a has-been even though it's just starting to get attention.

There's still a lot of potential in it right now, it hasn't been around long enough to say for sure what will happen. But if you would like an alternative to Facebook and you are an early adopter who talks to a lot of other early adopters, you will likely feel right at home. If you'd rather just watch a music video instead, you can check out the song about Ello by my friends the PDX Broadsides.