Ello is the name on everyone’s lips—at least this week. Led by drag queens who are fed up with Facebook, the new social network is fielding 31,000 requests an hour, and not just because Twitter users are offering up invites. People on Facebook are talking about Ello. That’s how you know it’s legit.
But Facebook is the network Ello wants to kill. Its manifesto is straightforward: “You are not a product.” Ello is ad-free and doesn’t believe in tracking your activity to sell to advertisers. But that isn’t why Ello is popular. The network is invite-only, which is driving demand. People who have signed up are inviting their friends en masse to make the site worth using. Have we so quickly forgotten Google+ and App.net?
The drag community turned to Ello earlier this month after well-known San Francisco drag performers were caught in Facebook’s algorithm dragnet—or were targeted by online bullies, according to a confession on anonymous app Secret—and were forced to use their legal names. The resulting fall-out included protests, meetings between Facebook and drag queens whose profiles were deleted, and now, a boycott. Ello was selected as an alternative.
But Ello is not the revelatory social network that will finally kill Facebook. It’s a fledgling site with plenty of potential, but Ello won’t be able to coast on the ability to use pseudonyms and its lack of ads for long. The network needs to make five drastic improvements to prove it’s more than just a flash in the pan.
The privacy (or lack thereof)
Ello has no privacy settings to speak of. Literally none. All profiles are public. If you’re fleeing Facebook because of confusing privacy settings or because you don’t want people to be able to find you by searching for your real name, Ello is not a den of privacy. Anyone can find you. You can’t block other users, which is an essential feature if you’re trying to create a safe space. Even Twitter, which isn’t exactly known for helping users deal with harassment, allows blocking. Ello published a list of features it’s working on, which includes private profiles and a block button, but those options should’ve been higher on the priority list.
There’s not a lot going on when you look at Ello, but I can’t decide if its black-and-white minimalism is purposeful or just a placeholder for a fully-fledged website. Finding friends is impossible: The site’s discover tool just takes you to a list of Ello users the network thinks you should add. I’ve been slowly friending people I know by asking them what their Ello names are. That’s no good for growth. The main feed, which is separated by “friends” and “noise” (people you don’t really know), also seems overly simple, though Ello’s upcoming feature list promises a “repost with attribution” tool. That sounds like Tumblr territory.
You can’t—or rather, shouldn’t—launch a social network without an app in our smartphone-centric world, yet Ello has done it. Why? I’m not sure. Its mobile site looks decent on an iPhone screen, but that’s because the site overall is so basic that there’s not a lot to mess up. Ello says it’s working on iOS and Android apps, but at this point, apps shouldn’t be an afterthought—they should launch with or before a website.
Facebook was ad-free for years. Tumblr’s founder hated the idea of ads. But sooner or later, every free network embraces advertising. How else are you going to make money? Ello has a vague plan to offer premium features that are worth paying for, and presumably that money will be enough to sustain the site. Others argue there’s no way a freemium model can support a social network at scale. Ello is currently funded by venture capital, which doesn’t come cheap. Investors will want a return. How will Ello make money without selling your data? That part, arguably the foundation of the entire network, is still fuzzy. Brands have already joined Ello, with Netflix encouraging its Ello followers to like the company on Facebook, thereby missing the entire point.
Plenty of sites lack ads. Many networks let you use pseudonyms instead of real names. So how is Ello different? Facebook has your entire life. Twitter is your news source. Tumblr is your creative outlet. Instagram is your photo studio. Pinterest is your inspirational scrapbook. Each has something that differentiates it from the rest. I’m curious what Ello will do to make itself an essential part of your day. So far, I’m not seeing it.
Ello is still in beta, so by the time it launches publicly, the network could incorporate all of these changes. But Ello is already so public, those invites so easy to get, that its days of quiet tinkering are over. This is the big time.