Upstart new social network Ello has made a big splash online in the past few days. An estimated 31,000 new users are signing up for the site - still in invite-only private beta - each hour.
While borrowing some elements from Twitter and Facebook - the use of @ replies will be immediately familiar - the user interface is markedly cleaner and simpler, lacking a lot of the extraneous features and bells and whistles typically associated with large community-building platforms.
In fact, Ello is SO streamlined, it can at times prove confusing. I couldn't figure out how to see @ replies from users who I'm not already following. This key feature on Twitter allows for a lot of the activity that makes that site worthwhile: without the ability to contact strangers with responses to what they post, or with follow-up questions, what's the point?
Also, YouTube links don't automatically embed on Ello yet, so posting a video just turns into a boring, dreary, not-very-clickable URL. Perhaps this feature is coming soon? But it kills the ability to use Ello as a significant self-promotional platform. And isn't that why a lot of people are on Facebook at all? (There is currently the option to upload a photo or video manually to the platform itself.)
Having said all that, Ello doesn't exist simply to provide an alternate UI to Facebook. The company's "manifesto" outlines the reasons for presenting social network users with a choice between services - getting away from an advertising-led model and the ensuing invasion of user privacy.
"Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold," the site reads. Co-founder Paul Budnitz told BetaBeat back in April: "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."
This does seem to cut against the news that Ello has accepted over $400,000 in seed funding from FreshTracks Capital, a Vermont-based VC firm. Clearly, the site is eventually expecting to make SOME money. But how, without violating the principles laid out in this manifesto? And why doesn't Ello MENTION the fact that it's backed by a VC firm - that will, at some point, clearly want to get its money back and then some - anywhere on its About page?
While pondering those questions, I took the time to mosey around the site a bit more, and I did stumble on a few fun little perks. Users can upload GIFs as their avatars and banners, allowing for greater personalization of their profiles. And users have the option of privately, anonymously differentiating between "Friends" and "Noise" when following people, allowing them to customize their feeds without hurting anyone's feelings.
There's one more significant difference between Ello and Facebook that has generated a lot of the attention for the new service: the "real name" policy. Facebook (along with red-headed stepchild social network Google+) requires users to sign up with their real name. This particularly caused a stir when it was reported that Facebook was shutting down the profiles of drag queens and other LGBTQ users who were utilizing their preferred online names and personas.
Ello has no such naming policy in place, and thus has become a haven for anyone wishing to participate in social networking while remaining safely anonymous.
Ultimately, whether or not a new social network has legs depends on how widely it's first adopted and then used by a new community. No one wants to hang out in a ghost town, and sites like Twitter and Facebook have a multi-year head start in allowing people to build up their network of friends, colleagues and associates.
But it's not impossible. For every Diaspora and Pownce flame-out, there's an Instagram and Snapchat counter-example. And at the rate that Ello is currently being adopted, anything's possible.