Saying Hello to Ello, an Ad-Free Facebook Alternative

A social network avoids ads and elevates design.

Most social networking services are built on the sale of personal data to advertisers and other third parties.

The first thing I noticed on Ello, a new ad-free social network, is the abundance of white space. Unlike Facebook, which rages with status updates, trending topics, and ads imploring me to click on things my friends “like,” Ello is quiet and calm.

Ello, a new ad-free social network that’s currently open only to those with invitations, focuses on style and simplicity.

The contrast is intentional. Created by designer and entrepreneur Paul Budnitz, Ello contends that on social networks like Facebook, we, the users, are the product, as our data is sold to advertisers who hope to entice us with ads in our feeds. Ello, on the other hand, positions itself as an antidote to that: it doesn’t include any ads, and one of several manifestos posted on the site says that those behind Ello “dislike ads more than almost anyone else out there.” It doesn’t sell user data to third parties, either, and you can decide whether or not you want to let it gather information about your own Ello activity to improve the site. To make money, it plans to take up a “freemium” model where it sells features to users.

This anti-ad (and in many ways, anti-Facebook) ethos, coupled with a stark, simple design that looks as if the German industrial designer Dieter Rams had created a more social version of Tumblr, is probably not causing many people to ditch Facebook, but it is making plenty of them curious about the new social network. Ello began its invite-only “beta” test in August with 90 people, and while Budnitz won’t divulge how many people are currently using it, he says Ello is now getting up to 31,000 requests for invites per hour. In a smartphone-obsessed world, that’s a lot attention for a social network that doesn’t even have an app yet.

With Ello approaching peak FOMO—that’s “fear of missing out”—among my friends, at least, I snagged an invite from a friend and spent several days diligently using it. So far, I like its clean design and sense of quietude. But since the social network is still so small, it’s hard to tell whether I’ll need it in the same way I do Facebook and Twitter, where I’m accustomed to paying with the breadcrumbs of data I drop along the way.

Several elements of Ello’s design are smart: your profile photo shows up within a circle, and you can follow other users by dragging their circular icons into either a “friends” or “noise” category, and recategorize them at any time by moving the circle to and fro. You can view a feed of updates from either category, with the “noise” one sporting a somewhat compressed, Tumblr-esque layout that makes it easier to glance at many posts at once.

Yet while the relative sparseness of Ello is nice to look at, it’s also confusing. Controls for posting an update, editing a post, or uploading a photo are shown in a light gray type that can be hard to discern. Comments on posts are shown from newest to oldest, which is the opposite of how it’s done on Facebook or Twitter. And it’s embarrassingly easy to delete a friend’s comment on one of your posts by clicking a tiny gray “x” next to the comment, which I initially assumed would simply minimize it.

Given its small but swelling user base, Ello feels kind of like a party at a hip art gallery where the guest list is kept secret. More people keep arriving, happy to see those they know, but confused about why we’re all there. Some posts on Ello reflect this sense of head-scratching: “So Ello is basically a stripped-down (commercial-free, for now) Tumblr/Twitter? Is that it?” posted one friend, while another asserted, “How is this better it’s just different.”

Then there’s the question of how Ello will pay for all this while still keeping out ads. Ello simply states that it will soon offer “special features” that users can pay “a small amount” to get; Budnitz says one example many users ask for is the ability to control multiple profiles with just one login, for which he suggests Ello could charge a couple of bucks.

This kind of model has worked for online and mobile games that allow you to play for free and pay for certain items within the game, and for a number of other startups like Evernote and Strava, but it’s not clear how well it can work on a social network—especially one that wants to grow.

It’s a bit premature to even think about any of that yet, as Ello is still in a private “beta” test, and its sudden popularity appears to be straining the social network. The search function seemed really slow, and profile pages sometimes took a long time to load (or simply didn’t load). While some features have already been built, a long list of them are still to come, such as the ability to block other users from seeing your profile, to post music or videos on Ello rather than just links to media, or to call out inappropriate posts. Apps for iPhone and Android are in the offing, but for now the only way to use it on a smartphone or tablet is via a mobile browser.

Despite the long to-do list, Ello is off to an intriguing start. There’s room for a social network that is both pretty to look at and a pleasure to use.

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