Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, recently spoke out—in a thinly veiled jab at Google and Facebook in the form of an open letter to customers—regarding the fact that Apple doesn’t sell customer data to advertisers or other third parties. In a similar vein, a new social network has emerged that directly challenges ad-supported social media by claiming to never sell user data.
The service? Ello.
Ello is getting quite a bit of media attention. It’s an ad-free social media site that’s being labeled a potential “Facebook killer” and the “anti-Facebook.” While no competing social network will likely kill—or even put a significant dent in—Facebook in the near future, Ello’s emergence and the serious attention it’s garnering are a sign that social media is maturing and beginning to serve different niches.
Ello, still in beta, is a free service launched by artists and designers in Burlington, Vermont (where, symbolically, roadside billboards are illegal). It has been described as a hybrid of Twitter and Tumblr. On its website, the company states, “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,” adding the Applesque, “You are not a product.”
Currently, Ello membership is available only via invite (although the service is still gaining 35,000 new signups and 45,000 invite requests per hour). New users are permitted to invite several friends. Unlike most social networks, Ello allows members to follow others as either “friends” or “noise” and doesn’t reveal how you’ve categorized them. Said one newspaper review, “Whatever the online version of ‘new car smell’ is, Ello has it.” This tone suggests that this relatively novel social network is special simply because it’s the new kid on the block—not because it’s truly disruptive in the evolution of social media. Which, of course, remains to be seen.
Echoing Cook’s message regarding customers versus products, the Ello Manifesto, posted on the company’s sparsely designed website, states, “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.”
Further indoctrinating potential users into its customer-focused, David-meets-Goliath culture, the company adds, “We believe there is a better way. 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.” I love the sound of that—and sincerely hope Ello survives past its startup phase. I’d also like to know what Vermont verde these guys are smoking.
Media response to Ello has been mixed, but typically cynical or pessimistic. England’s The Guardian wrote, “We’re turning to the new thing because it’s new, not because it’s good.” CNET reviewed the nascent service with a similar tone: “Plenty of folks are dubious.” AL.com, although supportive of the site, reported, “It’s pretty likely, however, that Ello is a flash in the pan.”
Unlike competing services from LinkedIn and Facebook, Ello lacks a “Like” feature. No doubt this is in response to the fact that it’s one of the most efficient ways in which Facebook and LinkedIn collect user preference data to sell to advertisers. It also currently lacks user blocking and a mobile app. In fact, there’s plenty of features you might be habituated to using on social media that aren’t available in Ello—at least not yet.
If this service is free and there’s no ads, how does it pay for server farms and employee salaries? The company plans to begin offering supplemental “special features” to enhance the user experience. Surely they’re hoping that all of your friends will purchase some of these features and, if you don’t, you’ll suffer feature envy or be incapable of engaging in certain types of communication. Gizmodo said it well: “Think of [Ello] as a freemium social network.”
In the end, Ello might turn out to simply be a relatively short-lived phenomenon. At worse, it could disappear in a few months (after its initial venture capital runs dry). At best, it might gain tens of millions of users and subtly influence services like Facebook and the resuscitated Myspace. Some are speculating that interest in Ello doesn’t necessarily reflect an affinity for this new, hip social network, but rather a disdain for old entrenched players. As The Guardian’s Jess Zimmerman wrote in late September, “Entrenched social networks like Twitter and Facebook would do well to pay attention, because they’re the ships we’re trying to abandon.”
Time will tell if enough people abandon—or, more likely, simply supplement—networks like Facebook and LinkedIn to ensure Ello’s survival. Just the fact that it allows members to use alias names will surely help it gain a few million followers (aliases violate Facebook’s recently introduced “real name” policy that has infuriated members of the LGBT community seeking to avoid harassment). In the meantime, if you’re really curious, stop by Ello’s website and drop your name in the hat, praying to the hipster gods of this new social network for an invite to the party.
It’s refreshing that this newbie service isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to its competitors. “We’re not interested in ruling the world. We think people that are motivated to do things like that have unresolved psychological problems.” Well alright now.
But don’t assume that meteorological success for Ello would hamper the explosion of Facebook, which—at 1.2 billion global users—hasn’t even peaked yet. Also, if a sufficient number of members don’t buy extended features to feed the company cash, this hip service will die before it even gets a chance to appear on the radar of most Facebook or Twitter users.
Probably the best way of describing this quirky social network was provided by a commenter on Gizmodo: “THERE’S A NEW SOCIAL MEDIA OUR PARENTS HAVEN’T RUINED YET!”
[Also check out a follow-up post: Ello in Real Life.]
Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:
- Home Theater for the Internet Age ($9.95)
- Understanding Personal Data Security ($4.99)
- Understanding Home Theater ($4.99)
- Understanding Cutting the Cord ($4.99)
- Understanding Digital Music ($4.99)