User data privacy fuels Ello’s continued growth surge

Ello is growing. Logos from Ello.
Ello is growing. Logos from Ello.

By Michael Epstein
Are you tired of getting chased by your browser profile on Facebook, Twitter and Google? They won’t be able to reach you on Ello, the site producers promise.

Proudly declaring that Ello will never run ads or track and sell user information, the new invite-only social network, continues to sign on thousands of new users every hour. Ello became a seemingly instant internet sensation in late September by rolling out the welcome mat for social network users frustrated by the business-minded data policies of Silicon Valley giants that sell profile information and browsing habits to advertisers.

Ello’s manifesto – yes, they have a manifesto – lays it on the line. “Are you a product?” Users who click “yes” are re-directed to Facebook’s data-use policy. According to that mission statement Ello is “a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate — but a place to connect, create and celebrate life.”

That consumer-friendly persona has brought users to Ello in droves: Despite pundits’ suggestions that the service’s 15 minutes are almost up, the site continues to bring in 40,000-50,000 new users per hour.

Anyone invited to join the site by a friend can create an account and in turn receives five invites to distribute to others.

“Actually, we don’t even consider Facebook to be a social network at all,” Ello founder Paul Budnitz said. “We think it’s an advertising platform, because the customer is the advertiser and the people who are using it are being bought and sold.”

Budnitz, a Burlington, Vermont-based serial entrepreneur, runs online bike shop Budnitz Bicycles and founded toy maker Kidrobot. Budnitz said his home state, which does not allow advertisers to put up billboards, was helped inspire the plan for an ad-free digital space.

Budnitz said he and his partners originally created Ello as a private social platform for themselves a year and a half ago so they could share ideas with their network of friends.

Ello founder Paul Budnitz. Image provided by Ello.
Ello founder Paul Budnitz. Image provided by Ello.

“I thought: ‘I’m not having any fun on social networks anymore,’” Budnitz said. “They’re totally cluttered. I can’t find my friends’ posts because there are all these paid posts getting in the way and all these ads.”

After getting “1000s” of requests from friends of friends, Budnitz said he and company began working on a public-facing site in March, which launched two months ago by sending an opening salvo of 90 invites.

While Budnitz would rather avoid comparing Ello to Facebook, their antagonistic relationship is much at the heart of the service’s recent rise to prominence.

Members of Facebook’s LGBT community began flocking to Ello in droves in response to policies at Facebook and Google+ that don’t allow users to use an alias on their profiles.

Facebook’s “real name” policy, which has been in place for more than 10 years, ambiguously requires users to go by their “authentic” name, the one users would hear from friends. Technically, users don’t need to use their legal name on Facebook, but they cannot use a fake name, either.

Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox released a statement last week on Facebook announcing plans loosen their enforcement of the policy.

“The stories of mass impersonation,” Cox wrote, “trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance, and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good.”

While Ello was initially hailed as the people’s champion, there are already a couple of critical backlashes over some of the service’s practices, though. Some early supporters, including former collaborator Andy Balkan, have cried foul over the fact that Ello received $435,000 from Vermont-based venture capital firm FreshTracks Capital when the company began working on the public-facing site in March.

Taking money from investors, critics contend, is a first step on a slippery slope that could end in Ello’s creators either giving in to advertisers or selling the platform to someone who will.

To those critics, Budnitz said it’s important to remember that not every tech start-up has to be sold to be successful.

A sample profile showing off Ello's strictly minimalist style. Image provided by Ello.
A sample profile showing off Ello’s strictly minimalist style. Image provided by Ello.

“We’ve put a pretty firm stake in the ground on what we’re doing,” said Budnitz. “We are a business. We will be a profitable business. But there is no exit strategy. We [will] just make money.”

Ethics aside, Ello’s minimalist style and offers of a more consumer-friendly community do not sway Miranda Mulligan, executive director of The Knight Lab at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, who doesn’t see why users would choose to spend time on Ello, either in place of another service or as a new addition to their social media diet.

“I have no reason to use this,” said Mulligan. “No one is talking. It got a lot of buzz and the only people who use it seem to be the people who made it and their friends. I want social network platforms that have utility.”

Ello plans to set itself apart — and achieve profitability — by offering users paid profile improvements, including unified access for multiple accounts, new color palettes and custom emoji. When Budnitz and company plan on unveiling those features is still unclear.

For now, Budnitz is confident that the message will keep bringing users to the medium:

“It’s much better to just be able to speak,” said Budnitz. “And so we’re just offering a different business model.”