Say Hello to Ello

Say Hello to Ello

Over the last few years, Facebook has amassed criticism by manipulating news feeds, selling user data and threatening to delete accounts of those who don’t use their real name. Many Facebook users have grown tired of Facebook’s commercialization and mistreatment of users, calling for the creation of an alternative social network.

Say hello to Ello, the social network gaining a reputation across the web as the “anti-Facebook.” In a bold move, Paul Budnitz, one of Ello’s founders, launched Ello with a powerful manifesto: “Your social network is owned by advertisers. Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. . .You are not a product.”

Budtnitz’s manifesto, which takes a not-so-subtle jab at Facebook and its dependence on advertisements, succeeded in generating a huge buzz of media and public attention for Ello. After only six weeks of operation, Ello received an impressive one million requests to join its network and continues to receive 31,000 new users an hour. Some pundits describe the movement to Ello as the “Great Facebook Exodus,” noting that many of Ello’s users shut down their Facebook accounts.

Do not buy into the hype, however; Ello lacks functional appeal and a sustainable financial plan, and will likely remain a niche site with potential. Facebook’s managers should take note of Ello’s rising popularity, though, as it signals growing public dissatisfaction with Facebook’s treatment of its users.

Taking a cursory look at Ello, one can see why the site would appeal to current Facebook users. Like Facebook, Ello features basic social media functions such as posting statuses, changing profile pictures, adding friends and following people. Yet unlike Facebook, Ello is “simple, beautiful & ad-free,” featuring a plain, monochromatic aesthetic devoid of clutter and a guarantee that people’s newsfeeds and names will go untampered with.

However, upon delving deeper into Ello, one begins to notice the site’s functional flaws. Ello sports a longer list of features-to-come than it does features currently offered. It also lacks basic necessities such as personal privacy settings, the ability to block or report users and a mobile app. Ello is unreliable and glitchy, too. The site has already experienced two shutdowns, and users frequently complain about glitches and confusion with the friend discovery tool.

Ello’s more fundamental problem is that its founders have only promoted everything Ello is not: Ello is not going to make you use your real name, Ello is not going to charge you money or use ads and Ello is not like Facebook. So far, that’s been enough to attract attention from unhappy Facebook users.

However, each social network site has its “thing” that its known for: Facebook provides convenient communication and picture-sharing, Twitter provides news and snappy quotes from celebrities, Tumblr provides users with a space to fangirl about vampires and One Direction, and Pinterest provides a space to share ideas for DIY projects, crafts, art and fashion. Ello’s founders still have to discover Ello’s unique “thing” that makes it stand out against its competitors if they hope to remain in business.

Even if Ello finds its “thing,” it relies on a financial model that will not work in the long run. Ello promises to remain a free service and to remain ad-free. So far, Budnitz has publicly announced that Ello will rely on only paid additional content and donations to make ends meet. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

Budnitz’s two money-making strategies will not pay off. People like paying for additional content even less than they like looking at advertisements, and paid content will likely rake in less money than advertisements can. As for donations, Ello may have a vaguely socially-conscious vibe, but it cannot rely on user donations. More to the point, Ello must make more money to satisfy its investors. Ello’s founders took $435,000 for its kickoff from FreshTracks, its venture capital firm, and they will likely receive another $315,000 within the next year. They will soon find it necessary to demonstrate Ello’s profitability to the firm that owns 12% of their company.

Ultimately, Ello’s founders face a difficult decision: stick to their manifesto to remain ad-free, but only provide slow, low-quality service and never scale to the size of Facebook, or dump their manifesto, use ads and lose their one unique aspect that sets them apart from Facebook. In the end, Ello will either become an artsy, hip and yet small social network, or become a sellout, Facebook-knockoff; however, it will never become the new Facebook.

With 1.3 billion monthly users, Facebook can afford to lose members to new sites like Ello. That does not mean Facebook should fail to provide excellent service to its users, however. Social media represents a central form of communication and expression for individuals. The average Facebook user devotes eight hours of their time to Facebook each month. Facebook’s managers seem to act on the assumption that because Facebook has no true alternatives, they can concentrate on pleasing shareholders more than the general public.

It’s unrealistic to expect Facebook to abandon advertisement completely, but Facebook could demonstrate greater respect for its users by reforming its advertisement usage and avoiding poor policy choices like newsfeed manipulation and rescinding user anonymity. In the end, maybe Facebook should say hello to Ello; Facebook’s owners could learn a thing or two from this little social network.