Is Ello a challenger?


Often the underdogs won’t usurp the dominant entities, rather they serve as a wake-up call in their contrasts, and provoke much-needed thought. And that may well be the destiny of a certain social network that has appeared on the scene at an incredibly pertinent time and taken the digital social world by storm.

Ello had its humble beginnings in the bosom of creator Paul Budnitz and his friends- seven of them in total, as a private social network between these artists and programmers. But as Ello attracted more and more interest, Budnitz and co built a public version for all to use, and Ello flew the nest onto the public stage. A couple of months on, and it’s been said that the site has been receiving 31,000 requests each hour from people to join.

To assume that the snowballing interest in Ello should simply be attributed to the hype of yet another social platform attempting to make waves, may be to undermine the current feelings of many social network users. The attraction of Ello lies in its apparent “power to the people” essence – this little guy is socking it to man. Its manifesto (yep, this social network is getting political) tells us that we are not a product, we are not data to be sold and bought and we should not be at the mercy of advertisers. There aren’t any adverts on Ello, and it does not sell user data. This battle cry is rousing, Budnitz hollers: “We don’t consider Facebook to be a competitor. We see it as an ad platform and we are a network”.

Undoubtedly, a social network without advertising is a tantalising prospect in an age where a person’s data is a valuable commodity. Our online movements are tracked, monitored and then peppered (sometimes blitzed) with adverts. Simple, ad-free Instagram has just starting serving adverts. When we all scurried to sign up with an exciting and fresh-faced Facebook, and put everything from our cat’s birthday to our shoe size on the internet, we didn’t quite anticipate the coming enormity of social media. We trusted Zuckerberg’s anxious reticence to succumb to advertising on the platform, but this was naïve: with enormity comes a price, literally. Over a billion monthly users on Facebook, over 270 million on Twitter- these social media monsters need money to function, and we all too often take for granted the efficiency of these platforms that’s enabled by a considerable cash flow. Ello has crashed, many times. In fact most of the site’s “news feed” as of late is smattered with people talking about this. “Sorry guys, bear with us, we’re only small, we’re only new” they appease. Teething problems, definitely, but if Ello wants to cease the “invite only” registrations and open the floodgates, and if the mass interest in the site doesn’t wane, it can’t practically be the game-changer it claims to be.

Well, Ello isn’t without a plan, it’s just quite a small one. And perhaps idealistic too. The network is free to use, but is very sparse by nature. Of course this simplicity is part of the charm, but people will always want more functionality. Ello will make some money by charging a couple of dollars or so for extra features and add-ons for profiles that users may want, and the creator firmly believes that they will be willing to pay for these. It’s technically bucking the trend of the free social network here, and once users settle into their new social network home- they’ll probably soon realise that they want to spruce it up. Whether they’ll want to foot the bill is another matter.

This is one of the most pertinent points that Ello is perhaps inadvertently raising- you either relinquish your data to an extent, or you pay for a service. It was ever thus, no free lunch. Ello and its challenger forefathers such as Diaspora, perhaps don’t quite realise just how much painstakingly careful effort Facebook puts in to serving its business interests and generating the resources to meet the demands of a world of users, whilst endeavouring not to bombard them, and to show them advertisements and content of interest. With great power comes great responsibility.

The debate will long continue, and it will remains to be seen how Ello will weather the storm of popularity whilst staying true to its impassioned, founding principles. In the meantime, the very presence of this new network is going to ignite thought on the future of social media advertising, and the struggle of Facebook, Twitter and friends as advertising increasingly becomes both their fuel and their potential transformer. If the delicate balance isn’t struck, the potential disruption of advertising on social networks outweighs the service that users receive from them. But the challenge also lies at the feet of the brands: the pressure is increasingly on for them to create exciting, intriguing social content that will entertain and be worthwhile rather than discourage. It’s the constant holy grail, and it has to be striven for now more than ever.