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Ello: the future Facebook?

What is Ello?

That’s a good place to start… Ello is a social networking service that was launched in March 2014, as an ad-free alternative to Facebook. Originally used as a private social network consisting of seven artists and programmers, after a year of private use the creators redesigned the entire site and launched the “public” version.

What makes it different to Facebook?

Ello was launched to offer an ad-free alternative to Facebook where users could connect with each other without the constant gathering of data to be sold to advertisers. The Ello manifesto states:

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.

As well as not treating users like a product, Ello give users the option to block any shared material (particularly images and videos) that is, or contains, advertising material.

Why haven’t I heard of Ello?

At the moment, there have only been a few reports about Ello due to it being in Beta testing mode. The site is accessible by invitation only, with just over one million users to date, and is still run by a very small team. Unless you’re lucky enough to know a member of the small Ello community, invitations are very hard to come by – short of requesting access and then hoping to be accepted. Luckily, I fell into the latter group and have spent a few months exploring features and watching the progress of the site.

What’s it like?

Ello is a very clean and well-designed, primarily made up of lots of white space, with “profile pictures” displayed within circular frames. Users can still connect with friends in the same manner as Facebook, but with the option to “tag” users as “friend” – users that you want to see updates from, and “noise” – users who you want to remain connected to, but who’s updates you don’t want to see.

It has to be said that the features that would be familiar to seasoned social media users are few and far between at this stage of production, and can often be quite buggy. The user search option, for instance, is also not as easy to use as other sites, although this could be due to the low level of active users. Despite multiple attempts, I only managed to find one other person who lived in the same town as me among Ello users.

While admirable in its intent, the no-ad policy also throws up an interesting issue: how does Ello raise funds in order to employ more developers and increase the rate of growth? In October 2014, Ello did reorganise itself as a benefit corporation (definition: a type of for-profit corporate entity, legislated in 28 U.S. states, that includes positive impact on society and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals) and managed to raise $5.5 million in venture capital, so therein may lie the solution.

Ello has also suggested that in the future, they could introduce the option to pay for bonus features, allowing users to customise Ello for their own use and create a truly individual profile.

Who is using Ello?

The majority of pioneer Ello users seemed to fall into a few categories:

  • Indie/Hipster users – looking for a new trend
  • Marketers – exploring the new format to be ahead of competitors should Ello reach public penetration
  • LGBTQ community – as a reaction to Facebook enforcing it’s “real-name” policy

As time goes on, Ello is starting to show a much broader range of users as it’s team manages to process the huge backlog of invitation requests (at one point reported to be at a level of 35,000 an hour).

Is Ello “one to watch”?

Quite possibly. Although initially the site has received criticism for being buggy and not as easy to use as competitor sites, it’s worth remembering that features are being added as quickly as the small team can manage. Even the social media behemoths that we know and love started life as a small group of developers. While it isn’t quite a slayer of giants yet, watch this space…