On Facebook and Twitter today you may have heard chatter of a mysterious place called “Ello.” It’s not often that a new social networking site rises above the fray without raising some serious venture capital or being propelled by professional publicists, let alone a network that’s still in private beta. And the discussions about Ello were largely happening among non-techies, at least in my circles – even more rare.
It’s not entirely clear why people are buzzing about it today, but it seems to have to do with Facebook cracking down on fake names. The move disturbed the LGBTQ population, some of whom use a different name than their given legal name, because it more fully represents the nuances of their gender, or to protect themselves from harassment. In light of the crackdown, these populations are leaving Facebook and turning to Ello instead, according to The Daily Dot and gay media site Queerty.
The fact that it’s still in beta and requires an invite to join hasn’t deterred people. Someone even managed to sell a beta invite on eBay for $500 to a willing bidder. It’s ranked number 6 in Google’s “Hot Searches” at the time I published this post.
When the application got its first smattering of press – back in March and April – the company billed itself as the “anti-Facebook.” Join the club. But what distinguishes it from a Snapchat, a Nextdoor, or a Path is a founding philosophy more than an ephemeral-content feature or a closed network. From its manifesto:
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 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 aims to keep ads out of the app. Otherwise, its premise is almost identical to Facebook: You have a profile, you post statuses or pictures, you comment on other people’s posts, you friend people. There’s no newsfeed, but there is a “noise” section with recent posts. It’s the sort of pitch I’d ignore if I got it in my inbox, swatting it away like a fly before it ever landed.
But Ello has appeared at the right time and the right place, perhaps with the right ethos. It’s Facebook, but less corporate. Its design is punk rock minimalism, not particularly intuitive to navigate. But the simplicity of the interface is a stark contrast to Facebook’s feature bloat. And its scrappy, early stage appearance might even attract the types of people who love being part of a novel, pioneering social network.
It’s Facebook, without the pressures of making enough money to appease shareholders. The lack of ads is noticeable. The premise – that you’ll spend your time reading friends’ posts instead of surfing promoted pages and media links – is almost quaint. It evokes a nostalgia for the past.
Ello hasn’t raised venture money yet, so it’s able to make sweeping proclamations about placing users over product. If it continues to bootstrap, it will indeed be able to operate under its own philosophy, but it will need money eventually to scale server space as its users grow. The fact that it’s already getting overwhelmed with the traffic and crashing – before it’s officially even launched to the public – is not a good sign.
Ello fans are calling for the site to stick to its guns and charge users for premium features instead of introducing ads. “Asking users to pay allows Ello to do something no other online company is doing right now — optimize Ello for users. This is a great advantage for Ello, because it would mean they could actually listen to users and give them an experience that would, given enough time, be so much better than the massive social networks,” Ello user — and journalist — Quinn Norton said in a post on the site.
We’re returning cyclically to the web of yore, where anyone could be anything, without such a fuss over real identity. Snapchat has shown that people crave the fleeting, a way to broadcast to the world without it following you forever. Secret and Whisper have shown that people crave anonymity, a way to share, connect, and relate under the cloak of secrecy. Perhaps Ello will show that people want a middle ground, a way to hide themselves from certain people but connect to others. It’s the revival of the MySpace principle: Share as much or as little about your real self as you choose.
But will its impact stretch beyond just the LGBTQ community?