Essays on Technology and Culture

Ello? Hell No.

So, a new social network has been getting a lot of buzz. It’s called Ello, and with Facebook’s real name policy raising hackles—and rightfully so—it’s been getting a fair amount of buzz. So many people are unhappy with the existing social network offerings, that Ello seems like a breath of fresh air. Especially since, it has no ads and collects no data.

One thing we all need to learn: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Ello seems to be no exception.

The first thing I read about Ello was enough to make me suspicious. It turns out that Ello profiles and all user data, as stated in their privacy policy are 100% public.

Ello is a platform built for posting and sharing public content. You should assume that anything you post on Ello other than private messages will be accessed by others.

Search engines will be able to see the content you post. Content you post may be copied, shared, or re-posted on Ello and on other parts of the internet in ways that you and we cannot control.

If you’re looking for a private place to talk and share with people you can trust, Ello is not your place. For anyone leaving Facebook because they’re worried they’ll be outed to friends, family, or employers, Ello is the last place you’ll want to go. They don’t go out of their way to say it, though I will give them points for writing their privacy policy in plain English. (N.B. this may be out of date, as I have heard from that you can set a “private” profile on Ello. As I lack an account, I cannot verify if this is true, or to what extent Ello considers a “private” account to be private.) As a number of Facebook exiles in this controversy are leaving for privacy, I imagine Ello will have a bit of trouble on their hands once this becomes public knowledge. In the meantime, caveat emptor.

Andy Baio is skeptical of Ello for other reasons, and they all have to do with money.

Unless they have a very unique relationship with their investors, Ello will inevitably be pushed towards profitability and an exit, even if it compromises their current values. Sometimes, this push comes subtly in the form of advice and questions in emails, phone calls, and chats over coffee. Sometimes, as more direct pressure from the board. (FreshTracks’ Managing Director sits on their board.) Or, if things go bad, by replacing the founders.

Paul Budnitz, Ello’s founder seems to have a more cavalier take on the matter. He claims that it’s “silly” to think its investors, currently FreshTracks Capital, will ever pressure them to renege on their promises to their users. I don’t think he knows how VC works. Once that $435,000 in seed capital runs out, he and his co-founders, will have to give up a little more of their stake in the company. The pressure will be ramped up to make a return, or to sell out. Right now, there’s no monetization strategy, just the promise of “premium features.” In the meantime, they have runway, and they have user growth. It’s a regular pattern among companies in the social space.

I know we’re all desperate for another place to call home on the Internet that treats users like real human beings instead of eyeballs and data. I’m no fan of Twitter or Facebook. Hell, I even signed up for App.Net, which still could have potential. However, I’m not desperate enough to jump onto the first ship that passes by, especially one that’s not only untested, but raises a ton of red flags. In short, no monetization strategy, questionable privacy policies, and no clear plans for the future. The more I learn, the more Ello looks like a shit sandwich, served on an artisanal brioche bun.