Well, this has all escalated quickly, hasn’t it Ello? Billed as a new ad-free for-all-people social media site, the little known platform suddenly skyrocketed in popularity, specifically as the Drag Queen-fueled debate on using real names was rebuffed by Facebook’s upper crust. Ello came out strong, standing on a motto and poised manifesto that “You are not a product”.
I was just as pumped to hop onto this strange new space (ello.co/thetiffy, if you were wondering). With its back-and-white-aesthetic, typewriter script, sleekly designed simplicity, the ramp-up began as an exodus of friends found me there, and I them. However, digging into the background and start of Ello brought more questions than answers.
Not to dig into the consumeristic culture of the Internet and negatively assume the philosophy that everyone is always trying to sell you something somehow (I work in marketing, remember?), buuuuut it seems a little too precious, a little too perfect — that somehow these designers and engineers could and would put together a social platform without anything to gain, monetarily, that is. Then, the a-ha when searching through their “WTF” section detailing their security information and policies:
“We may share your personal information with third parties under several circumstances, including (1) if you tell us it is OK to do so (2) if we believe that we need to do so by law (3) if we contract with a third party service provider to offer services for you — for example, with a credit card processing company if you decide to buy something through Ello.
Ello does not have any affiliated companies right now. But if we do in the future, we may share information with them, too.“
This is not the anti-capitalistic online answer that I think a lot of us crave. Instead it might be the more transparent alternative to the new reality: someone will try to sell you something at some point. Andy Baio has been making the rounds in a recent post on Ello that, “they took a $435,000 round of seed funding in January from FreshTracks Capital, a Vermont-based VC that announced the deal in March” and details his skepticism eloquently.
Which only goes to show, in the cycle of funding and profit, Ello may not be treating their users as a product, but they certainly have to sell something to someone. The idea that the company is going to rebuff offers from larger corporations, and attempt to create a global community without direct advertising, feels more like a utopian experiment than a viable business model.
Todd Berger, a founder of Ello, addressed Baio’s note, responding, “Ello is privately funded, and a very large majority of Ello is owned by its 7 founders. We control the company. There’s no pressure for us to do anything we don’t want to do…” And posted an article, “There Is No Exit Strategy.” However, as recently as today, the philosophical inspiration for Ello’s lofty Manifesto has decided to leave the platform due to his own disappointment in Ello taking the investment money.
Then again, how is one to run an online service or platform (with such a huge new user surge!) and keep making improvements to their Beta? Diet Coke, server space, and ramen are essential to this kind of business, and are not free. Ello seems to say they are not a business in the traditional narrative of making money, serving ads, and targeting their users — but unless they’ve somehow reinvented the Internet-money-wheel, then they might just be another place to put a profile photo.
Like all good consumers, we want variety. And Ello is the new precious-tasting option on the menu when we’re all starving for privacy online. But it might not have the ingredients we think it does.
UPDATE 9/28/14: Ello is currently down. Outage. Better get more Red Bull, guys.
UPDATE 11/7/14: Annnnnnd Ello is totally a ghost town in terms of activity. Cue the lone tumbleweed.