It seems to be happening on a regular basis -- a new social network bursts on the scene with dreams of dethroning Facebook. This time it's Ello, a social network startup headed by a bicycle and toy maker.
Ello exploded onto the social networking scene last week, adding more than 45,000 new users every hour at one point. Today, invites to the social network are for sale on eBay for upwards of $5,000.
Ello's proposition is simple: It's a safe haven for fed-up Facebookers. The social network doesn't require your real name, and promises it will remain advertising-free and never sell your data. "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," its manifesto reads.
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Those promises are attractive to anyone yearning to break free of Facebook's shackles. But Ello probably isn't the panacea many frustrated Facebook users are looking for.
No ads, no problem?
Ello calls itself the anti-Facebook: It doesn't sell ads and it won't sell user data to third parties. "Collecting and selling your personal data, reading your posts to your friends, and mapping your social connections for profit is both creepy and unethical," it says. "We also think ads are tacky, that they insult our intelligence, and that we're better off without them."
Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and Tumbler were all ad-free for years, but ultimately they turned to selling advertising and data to make money. Ello acknowledges its unusual stance and says that if it were to break this commitment, it would lose most of its community -- a debatable point, as Facebook has grown to 1 billion users.
Ello founder Paul Budnitz is unfazed by making money, telling BetaBeat that costs so far are low and that a freemium model is in the works. This approach, while noble, probably isn't sustainable at scale. Ello's developers -- who reportedly have worked around the clock to maintain the site -- need to be paid, after all. At some point, something will have to give: Social networks need revenue to operate, iterate, and innovate.
Buggy and boring
If you've been lucky enough to score an Ello invite, you've probably noticed the bugs -- such as how difficult it is to search for people you know -- which aren't all that surprising, considering its unexpected rise to fame. Budnitz even admitted to Ad Week that the site was "really buggy and had no capacity to handle people." Ello also suffered its first major outage this weekend, which it blamed on a DDoS attack.
Beyond the bugs is an overly simplistic design and feature set that, compared to Facebook, is refreshing at first but boring after a while. Like any other social network, you can post status updates, photos, and comments. Unique features include a counter that displays how many views a post gets and a Noise section that displays posts from people you may not know. But that's pretty much it.
Its list of features to come is nothing exciting, either: a notification center, online/offline user designation, emojis, and private accounts. That's right, private accounts -- because Ello also has no privacy settings.
That brings us to Ello's most glaring shortcoming: privacy. While the social network promises to protect you from advertisers and data brokers, it has no controls to protect you from other users. All profiles are public, so anyone can find you and view your profile. There is no blocking capability, either. That's on the to-do list as well.
Ello, which is still in beta, isn't a Facebook killer. For now, it's hindered by a noble goal and unsustainable business model that will impede its ability to play catchup and offer users standard features, like privacy settings. If anything, its buzz and growth serves as a reminder to other social network behemoths that users are wary of data and advertising practices -- and willing to say hello to a reasonable alternative.
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