Last September, a website called Ello appeared, and very quickly, everyone got very excited. It was an ad-free social network that promised not to sell users' data and give them a clean, vaguely Scandinavian-looking layout. Anyone looking for a Facebook alternative had someplace other than Google+ on which to hang their hopes and dreams. "Ello: the anti-Facebook meant to be private and pretty, but not this popular," trumpeted the Guardian. The Dow Jones blog Marketwatch threw around a headline that said, "Facebook killer called Ello Gets the timing right." Just days after it entered the news cycle, people were literally asking, "Could Ello be the next Facebook?"
Hundreds of thousands of users signed up to the invite-only service. The new site, founded by an entrepreneur Paul Budnitz, came with a prominently placed manifesto that threw shade at other social networking sites:
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 the product that's bought and sold.
Plus – and I suspect this was a big deal – on Ello you could look at adult content that Facebook wouldn't let you see.
It sounded great, but once the Ello bouncer let you through the velvet rope, the newest, hottest nightclub in town turned out to be a cool space with decent music, but no liquor license or bathrooms. People joined the site, but once they were there they seemed to mostly talk about how they had joined up or wonder out loud what they were supposed to post there. It was also oddly difficult to find your friends.
There were other flaws: Posting a URL didn't scrub a page for an image and description; it was annoyingly just a URL. Hitting "post" meant hitting a clickable button marked "→" instead of just pushing enter. And while it offered anonymity, you had no ability to message anyone privately.
I tried hard to get into Ello, even though my friends weren't posting on it, but never succeeded in joining a community. People I wanted to be friends with—bloggers, fellow writers, and someone named @nudes (link is NSFW)—didn't return my @ replies or friend me back. My posts declined in popularity. The sheer joy of being there didn't last long.
I wasn't alone. The internet's attention soon wandered away from Ello, in search of the next hot topic to create shareable content about.
Last week, curious to see what was going on with the formerly hip social network, I wracked my brain to remember my password and logged back in. The first thing I noticed when I fired up my Ello was that none of my friends had used it since at least November, and consequently my "friends" newsfeed was like a time capsule. Even @nudes hadn't posted in months. So I also used the "discover" feature to find some Ello-ites who posted a lot and began interacting with their posts.
One of my new follows, Kervin Brisseaux, said that the site was still a bit buggy—adding new information to his profile, for instance, involved some trial and error. "Changing my description takes a couple tries," he said. "When I try to upload a new website to the website line, it tends to not work." Still, Brisseaux remains a fan, and says the bugs don't bother him because "it's still a new site."
But it's also a lonely site. I may be used to the madding crowd of Twitter and Facebook, but I found it nearly impossible to get those dopamine squirts of positive reinforcement that hit you when you get a lot of likes or favs. My questions were ignored. My jokes weren't popular. There's no such thing as a like or fav.
Finally, desperate for attention, I posted a .GIF of a young woman flashing her boobs, and to my dismay, even that didn't get much traction—but then, Todd Berger, Ello's head of graphic design, commented on it with a friendly note and a link to some recent updates about the site. He's not the only Ello guy who does this: Site developer Justin Gitlin roams around dropping relevant emojis on posts, and @Budnitz, the account of Ello CEO and co-founder Paul Budnitz, is one of the most active and popular feeds on the site.
How popular is Ello with people who don't work there? When I reached out to him, Budnitz wouldn't share much in the way of stats. "We don't publish official data about the number of people on Ello. We decided early on not to get into that arms race," Budnitz said when I asked him how growth was going. He did say the site had acquired 250,000 new users in the past week, but that doesn't mean all of those people will become active participants on the site, and it doesn't mean that a lot of the profiles on the site haven't been more or less abandoned.
Budnitz is sanguine about how things have shaken out after last year's spike. "Yeah, it was nuts then," he told me from his Vermont office. "We released Ello with 90 people in September, and kinda cruised along. Then suddenly we got this enormous amount of media attention… When Ello first came out there was no way our service could handle that traffic. It was just nuts."
Shortly after that swell of users, Ello became a public benefit corporation, which means it's legally obligated to serve a stated mission as opposed to the bottom line. (Other examples of public benefit corporations include municipal transit authorities and the Boy Scouts.) That, the Ello team says, means the site will never sell user data or display paid ads, even if it gets sold to someone else.
For Budnitz, however, Ello was never meant to be the "Facebook killer" that the media made it out to be. In March, when the site was still a twinkle in his eye, Budnitz told Motherboard, "We built it specifically with creative people in mind, people who value content, with a good bit of discussion and dialog happening around that content."
Kervin Brisseaux, the user I spoke with, is one of those creative people. He's been using Ello as a platform to distribute his art. The site's layout allows you to post massive images, and you don't have to worry about your work offending your aunt or getting taken down for being too sexy the way you might on Facebook. Brisseaux has thousands of followers, and receives plenty of encouraging comments. Ello has given quite a boost to his career. "Within the past few weeks a potential job has come from [my work on Ello]," he said, "and I've been collaborating with fellow artists as well, that I wouldn't have met otherwise."
Another user, who goes by "ngarrang," also posts his work on Ello, but his poetry and photography hasn't quite gotten the attention Brisseaux's had. I asked him why he was still plugging away on a somewhat obscure social media site, and he had a fascinating answer: "I am trying to create a new me. One that is an artist (music, poetry, photography), and [Google+], Ello, and Tsu allow me a clean slate compared to the years of Facebook use, and the long-time friends I have there."
If you follow enough artists on Ello you'll have curated a feed of photos, .GIFs, and videos reminiscent of a sort of backwoods version of Tumblr or Pinterest. Memes and selfies certainly aren't nonexistent here, but they tend to be artsier. And there does seem to be a sense that Ello users are in this thing together—lurk enough on Ello, and you'll find yourself seeing a lot of lovefests between artists.
"The most remarkable thing is how positive it is," Budnitz told me.
For instance, here's an exchange that occurred on a posting about a fashion show:
As it stands, Ello is the nice small town of the internet: It's friendly and welcoming when you know everyone, but a bewildering place to walk into as an outsider. The trick going forward will be for Budnitz and company to scale up and get rid of the bugs and hiccups while maintaining everything the current user base likes about the site.
That core of fans is what matters right now, and they're a huge part of the site's direction. "We release features to small groups first to make sure they don't fuck up how Ello works, then to everyone once we know they're right," said Budnitz. This spring, according to Budnitz, will see the launch of Ello's app, and the site will cease being invite-only "whenever we're sure it's time."
In the meantime, Ello continues to grow, slowly and away from the public spotlight, and odd little sanctuary for anyone who gets really fed up with larger sites. For now, the site seems like it wants to be an extension of Budnitz's Ello bio: "I create beautiful things that change the world."
That's just a really, really difficult promise to keep.
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