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Our Relationship with the New Social Network Ello: It’s Complicated

Rob Pegoraro
·Contributing Editor
Ello beta screenshot
Ello beta screenshot

Over the past few weeks, something strange has been happening in the social-media universe: People won’t shut up about a network that they can’t join without an invitation and that probably lacks their friends as members.

The fascination over Ello, the “simple, beautiful, and ad-free social network” that bills itself as an antidote to Facebook and its advertising foundation, shows two things at work.

One is that although 1.32 billion of us show up on Facebook at least once a month, some of us are still not satisfied by it. Another is that we remain unclear on how we should evaluate a new social network’s sales pitch.

What is Ello?
Ello offers the same components we’ve seen in other social networks going back to the instant-messaging buddy lists that AOL (and Yahoo) failed to capitalize on in the 1990s: the ability to post text and image status updates, a list of friends whose own status updates scroll down the page, and comment threads that unfold below each update.

What’s missing: ads and the resale of information about you to advertisers. According to its manifesto: “Ello is totally ad-free. Ello does not sell data about you to third parties, including advertisers and data brokers.”

Unfortunately, in my case (and for many other early users) Ello also lacks the very things that make a social network work: Either friends with whom we can share confidences or a large audience for our public banter.

I know it’s early days (tech-speak for “please don’t judge us until our next funding round”), but so far Ello has been the kind of network where you can ask if anybody wants to talk about an agonizing and historic 18-inning loss by your city’s team and then get zero replies and only 19 views over the next day.

There are only so many social networks for the hours in my day, and Ello hasn’t made a good case for itself yet, at least among normal people. I mean, almost all the conversations I’ve had about Ello have been on Twitter and Facebook.

(Note that Yahoo Tech is also on Ello.) 

Where many networks have gone before
The history of would-be alternatives to Facebook and other dominant social networks does not inspire confidence in this latest project. Facebook did unseat MySpace, but that site was both far smaller and less nimble than Facebook.

Since then, the distributed, open-source social network called Diaspora failed to take off after a promising start. The Twitter rival App.Net now rests in a suspended-animation maintenance mode. Even Google hasn’t been able to bump off Facebook.

That’s not to knock these efforts. Social networks aren’t like apps that work fine for you even if nobody else uses them; they operate on the network effect of having enough of everybody else around. 1.32 billion users is a massive head start. But people are fickle, and they still make room for newcomers and niche networks.

What Ello could do better
Ello has taken the first step to earning users’ trust — and outdone many other startups — by suggesting how it will stay in business without ads: It will charge “a very small amount of money” to add unspecified “special features” to your account.

That “freemium” business model is both legitimate and workable: Evernote has done well by making maybe 90 percent of its features free, and then charging for those extra bits.

But a company with a pitch that amounts to “Trust us” shouldn’t leave it to users to discover its venture-capital funding. Instead, user Andy Baio (who remains supportive of Ello) was the one who noted that it took $435,000 from Shelburne, Vermont-based FreshTracks Capital. As Baio observed, venture funds want to more than recoup their investment when a company is bought or goes public — which means Ello can face pressure for massive growth that may undercut its initial mission.

That funding information should be on Ello’s About Us page but still isn’t. A query about that and other issues sent to its press email account Sunday went unanswered.

Ello also lacks what should be a fundamental social-media feature: the ability to take your data with you if you delete your account. That’s not on its “Coming Soon” feature list either.

(But you know what social network launched without a defined business model or a data-portability feature? Facebook.)

The Facebook alternatives you already have
If Facebook’s reach and influence bother you, then a simpler remedy is already at hand: Don’t give it all your business.

I find Facebook enormously helpful to see what people I care about are up to — it’s “friend radio,” as my pal Esther Schindler once said. But it’s not the only place where I converse with friends, acquaintances, and strangers, and I hope it’s not yours either.

If you want to show off your photographic talents with the public, there are better options (like Yahoo’s own Flickr, which I starting using long before I began writing here). The best place to talk about a specialized topic — baseball, your neighborhood, your city, your health, your work, travel, whatever — is often a forum on another site.

And as The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal noted earlier this summer, the most resilient and open rival to Facebook is already installed on all your computers: your email, a network no one company owns or can bar you from.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.