Hello, Ello. Bye, Ello: Ad-free Facebook alternative lacks oomph


Ello is not the savior we have all been waiting for. Facebook isn't going down to Ello, or any other startup with big dreams of toppling over the king of all social networks, for that matter, even with hundreds of thousands of Internet users trying out the invite-only social network and bragging about their invitations on Facebook.

The move to Ello was led by the drag community, which is facing a real-names crackdown on Facebook for using their drag names instead of their real names on their FB profiles. Angered by Facebook's refusal to allow drag queens and nightlife performers to use their chosen names, which are more aligned to their identities than their given names, some members of the LGBT community took to Ello as their Facebook alternative.

Unfortunately, not everyone will be jumping ship. Sure, right now, Ello is racking up to 45,000 invitation requests an hour, and eBay actually has listings for Ello invites that cost as much as $5,000. But the challenge for the fledgling social network remains enormous. It has major issues to contend with, not the least of which is its lack of advertising. This is the very reason why its founders decided to create their own ad-free social network in place of Facebook and Twitter, where Ello says "You're the product that's being bought and sold."

"Ello's entire structure is based around a no-ad and no data-mining policy," says Ello on its website. "Quite frankly, were we to break this commitment, we would lose most of the Ello community. Including ourselves, because we dislike ads more than almost anyone else out there."

Ello concedes that all the major social networks started ad-free but "suddenly switched gears." The company says it is not following in the footsteps of bigger websites and will always be free. So how does Ello plan to pay back its investors? In stealth mode, the social network filed a notice of equity funding worth $435,000 from Fresh Tracks Capital and is expecting to receive another $315,000.

Ello says it plans to provide a host of new features that will hopefully spruce up its otherwise bare, almost empty interface. Existing features that set it apart from other social networks include a separate news feed for Friends and Noise, where all the people they want to connect with go into the Friends feed and everyone else are labelled Noise. There is also a views counter that tells users how many people have seen their posts, but that is pretty much it.

The new list of features, which are not yet available, are nothing remarkable. Ello promises to introduce enhanced user discovery, a feature that is badly needed at the moment as users have reported difficulty looking for their friends on Ello, even when they search for their Ello names. Ello will also include a new feature that allows users to make their profile available only to Ello users.

Currently, anyone who wants to view an Ello profile, even if he does not have an Ello account, can do so. This makes Ello a whole lot less compelling for users who are looking for privacy and the drag community that facilitated Ello's possibly short-lived stardom.

"Ello deliberately does not have any sort of personal privacy settings, and it does not have any sort of features to block or report individuals, nor any way to consent to being followed," writes drag queen Creatrix Tiara on her Tumblr blog.

Ello confirms this on its own About page, where it tells users that it is a "platform built for posting and sharing public content," although it says it allows users to delete whatever content they share from their personal accounts anytime they wish.

"Search engines will be able to see the content you post," says Ello. "Content you post may be copied, shared, or re-posted on Ello and on other parts of the Internet in ways that you and we cannot control."

So much for being the anti-Facebook of our times. Perhaps what Ello should aim for, instead of building its business on rallying against the business practices of those it aims to bring down, is to find itself a compelling hook to attract a community that is willing to stay. Facebook, for instance, is where everybody is. Twitter is a real-time news source. Instagram is a worldwide photo album. And Pinterest is an idea haven for scrapbookers. What is Ello for, aside from ranting against its competitors?

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