Hello Ello, Goodbye Facebook: Social media network without ads woos US users

Can social networks products function without advertising? So far, the most successful example of a social media product that didn't rely on any advertising is WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook for $19 billion.

While WhatsApp hasn't been flooded with ads for now and it looks unlikely in the future, a new social media website called Ello, which has been created by California-based artist and designer Paul Budnitz, is premised on the no advertisers policy. Ello is invite-only for now and according to this post on TheDailyDot is also attracting several members of the LGBT community.

The website's homepage says the idea is to not treat the user as a product and to keep user data and privacy safe. The page reads,

"Your social network is owned by advertisers. 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.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate — but a place to connect, create and celebrate life.

You are not a product."

Ello is currently in beta testing and you can only join if you get an invite. You can request one by sending an email. In an interview to BetaBeat, Budnitz, who incidentally also launched a luxury bicycles company in 2010, says that idea for the social network arose due to the disillusionment with other social networks.

He tells the website, "My partners and I had lost interest and were fed up with other social networks — exhausted by ads, clutter, and feeling manipulated and deceived by companies that clearly don’t have our interests at heart. We used Ello privately for about a year and invited around 100 of our artist & designer friends to join." The growing interest meant that demand was a bit too much to handle for the servers of Ello. According to Budnitz,"Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, etc. aren’t really social networks — they’re advertising platforms. They exist to sell ads. That’s it.”

The interview with BetaBeats also points out that Budnitz isn't a fan of mass consumption or production. Which probably explains the luxury bicycles. Before that Budnitz founded Kidrobot which sells limited edition toys (around 60 new toy projects are announced by the company each year) and the toys are sold in thousands of stores worldwide, according to Budnitz's website.

 Hello Ello, Goodbye Facebook: Social media network without ads woos US users

Screenshot of Ello

With Ello the emphasis is on design as well. Ello will let you do the same things that a Facebook or Twitter does, that is post messages, share links, send messages, etc. but according to Budnitz, "the interface is very tidy, very intuitive and fast." He adds that interface is "designed to almost disappear — it’s very refined, but after using it for a while you almost don’t even notice the interface."

For now, it seems that Ello has won its early fans in the gay community in the US. According to this Daily Dot report, Facebook's naming policy (which insists that everyone must use their legal names) has caused anger in the community and many, especially those who identify as trans, have now decided to get off the Facebook and into Ello. The report doesn't really have any numbers to showcase how big this so-called 'exodus' seems to be, but Facebook seems to have rankled the gay community a fair bit.

Budnitz told The Daily Dot "Yes, we’ve been hearing about the Facebook drama too over the last few days. Ello welcomes the LGBTQ community and we’re very excited to see so many people moving over!" In the US Facebook has apparently told drag queens that they must use their legal name, else lose their profile. As more LGBT members joined Ello has bumped up their privacy controls and ensured that abusive behaviour can be reported more quickly.

While it's hard to pin down a number to say exactly how popular a new social media website like Ello is given that it's still in beta and also based on invite only, there has been growing frustration with Facebook.

Most recently, when Facebook forced users to download and install the Messenger Mobile app on their phones and tablets, not everyone was happy and a lot of concerns were raised over privacy. Facebook then wrote a damage control post pointing out that the app was not in violation of user privacy and wouldn't spy on users (as rumours indicated).

But where Facebook's numbers are concerned, some have argued that they are dipping. In January this year a Princeton study had claimed that Facebook was like a social media disease and that would lose up to 80 percent of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017. The research used models of how diseases spread along with publicly available Google search query data on Facebook and the likes, to figure out exactly how social networks grow and die.  Facebook had mocked that study saying that Princeton would lose 80 percent of its students by 2017 and that they had based their "data" on Princeton’s paper publications (which were in decline since 2009) and also that the university has been doing badly where Google trends is concerned.

While the Princeton study was definitely alarmist and shaky where data is concerned, fatigue and frustration with Facebook is not new.  A recent study in EU showed that where 16-and 18-year olds are concerned, Facebook is no longer cool for them and that they have moved to Instagram (owned by Facebook so things aren't so bad), Snapchat etc.

More recently in April this year, a post on Business Insider quoted Ian Maude of research firm Enders Analysis who showed how Facebook's user growth is slowing. The report showed that the decline is the most marked in the US, where "Facebook now adds only 1 million people per quarter". But it did point out that the reason for this is that Facebook has nearly 50 percent of all Internet users on Earth, if you don't include China where Facebook is blocked. In fact in this quarter's results, Facebook had over 1.32 billion monthly active users, which is an increase of 14 percent year-over-year.

Despite this big number, the sluggishness is starting to show at least with some communities. It's definitely too soon to call Ello a challenger to Facebook given that not too many people outside of US might have even heard of it. But Ello's existence and the talk around it are is an indicator that in the developed world users are looking for newer and leaner social network options.

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Updated Date: Sep 24, 2014 17:10:59 IST