Although it's invite-only, it's fairly easy to sign up for Ello.
  • Although it's invite-only, it's fairly easy to sign up for Ello.

In the last few days, my Facebook feed (and I’m assuming yours, too) has been clogged with posts about Ello, a new social-networking site that’s aiming to be the anti-Facebook (its tagline is "simple, beautiful & ad-free"). Initially, my instinct was to ignore it. (Do we really need another social-media site to replace Friendster Myspace Facebook?) And then I gave in to peer pressure.

Like Facebook and Gmail in its early days, you need to be invited to Ello by someone who’s already joined. I contacted one of my friends via Facebook (d’oh) and asked for an invite. The whole process from maybe-I-should-join-this to now-I’ve-got-another-goddamn-social-media-account took about 20 seconds. At least it gets an A+ for ease in signing up.

The first thing you’ll notice about Ello is its incredibly minimalist design—everything’s black, white, or gray. There are hardly any menus or buttons or text. It looks like a coder designed it. There are three tiny icons, plus a hamburger (which just makes the minimalist design even more minimalist), “Friends” and “Noise” buttons (“Noise” is a news feed of curated posts in the Ello community), and that creepy eyeless smiley face (Ello’s logo). So far, I’ve got only one friend. I tried finding others who I know are on Ello, but the search function didn’t seem to work. Instead I was shown profiles of strangers I might want to follow, such as “@bitchesonbicycles” and “@neil” and “@mothra.”

The privacy settings are minimal, too.* There are options for making your profile public or not, allowing comments on your posts (or not), and “allow[ing] Ello to gather anonymous information about your visit.” My one friend commented that he was disappointed that Ello seems more like Twitter than Facebook—that is, your posts can be viewed by anyone (if you make your profile public), and anyone can follow anyone.

In an interview with BetaBeat, Ello founder Paul Budnitz explained his thinking behind the new social network: “You can connect with friends, post all sorts of media, comment, message, and engage in a number of other content-related activities. The difference between Ello and other networks is that the interface is very tidy, very intuitive and fast.” Budnitz, who’s the founder of toy company Kidrobot and luxury titanium-bike manufacturer Budnitz Bicycles, assembled a group of artists and designers to use Ello for about a year before opening it up to others.

Ello’s other main goal, besides being “tidy,” is to avoid the personal data mining and advertising of other social networks.

“They will do whatever it takes to show you more ads — and to show your friends more ads — even reading your posts and your friends’ posts and using your connections to make money,” Budnitz told BetaBeat. “We think this is evil.” (Ello’s “manifesto” calls the social network a “tool for empowerment” and declares “you are not a product.”)

That all sounds great, however, a lot of social-networking sites began ad-free. The question becomes how to make it sustainable as (or if) it grows. Ello answers this question in its “About” section, explaining that while Ello is completely free and will never have ads, “very soon we will begin offering special features to our users. If we create a special feature that you like, you can choose to pay a very small amount of money to add it to your Ello account forever. We believe that everyone is unique and that we all want and need different things from a social network. So we are going to offer all sorts of ways for users to customize their Ello experience.”

Ahhhhh. So what sort of customizable features will Ello offer? And will people actually pay for them? That's not clear, but people do seem to be flocking to Ello. According to the Daily Dot, many members of the LGBT community are signing up to Ello in protest of Facebook’s policy about deleting profiles of people who don’t use their legal names, including drag performers.

So far, though, I haven’t felt compelled to post anything. And I still can’t find my friends. I’m going to keep exploring the site and see how it progresses, but hey, if it turns out to suck, at least they’ve made it easy to leave. On its “About” page, Ello states, “we've put a very obvious DELETE ACCOUNT link on every user's settings page. If you ever don't like the direction Ello is heading, we invite you to delete your Ello account.”

*UPDATE: Last night, Ello sent out a notice saying they're going to enhance their privacy features. "You will have the ability to block specific users from looking at your Ello feed and profile, and from commenting on your posts. We’re also adding a simple way to report uncool behavior," which they define as "hate, trolls, spamming, stalking, impersonating others, threats, and abusive behavior towards anyone." Engaging in said behavior will get you kicked off the site. That's a commendable (albeit ambitious) decision—just ask any news site that tries to moderate comments. As lame as Facebook's decision to delete drag performers' accounts is, the thinking behind the real-name-only policy is that it encourages more ethical behavior. How will Ello handle this task without investing a huge amount of resources? Your guess is as good as mine.