Hello, Ello! What you need to know about the new social network stealing users from Facebook

Meet Ello: The advertisement-free, fake-name-friendly, alternative social network

Published September 26, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

Mark Zuckerberg                   (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Mark Zuckerberg (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Facebook has been abuzz of late about a curious new phenomenon: People leaving Facebook in favor of a smaller, simpler social media site called Ello. The fervor for Ello took hold this week in light of Facebook's recent "real names" crackdown -- forcing folks to use their legal names on their profiles or be locked out of the service -- which has especially affected members of the LGBTQ community.

Though there are other Facebook-alternatives, including Diaspora and Google+, many are now flocking to Ello.

What is Ello?

Ello is an invite-only social network created by Paul Budnitz, along with graphic designers Todd Berger and Lucian Föhr, and creative engineers from Mode Set. By the creators' own description, Ello is a "simple, beautiful, and ad-free social network."

(Back in March, the Daily Dot reports, the team was working pro-bono.)

"We built Ello because virtually all the other social networks were cluttered, ugly, and full of ads," a note on the site explains. "We began to feel manipulated by the networks themselves — many of our posts were never seen by our friends at all, because ads had taken priority."

Ello, though invite-only, is free, and user content is viewable to the public. The site has reportedly started receiving thousands of invite requests per hour -- it even appears that invites are being auctioned off on eBay -- an influx so intense that they were forced to temporarily freeze invitations, Re/Code reports.

“We’re slammed!” Ello wrote beneath an "Invite your friends" section of the site.

Why are people flocking to it?

There are several reasons why Ello has become the social network du jour. For one, it is advertisement-free, which in a world of Facebook ads and promoted tweets, is pretty refreshing.

It also is becoming a home for those who have fallen victim to Facebook's problematic "real name" policy. Facebook has recently begun enforcing the use of real names on the site, claiming it is for "safety" purposes.

Swept up in this crackdown are drag performers and others in the LGBTQ community, who have reported being locked out of their accounts. The Daily Dot spoke to Paul Budnitz to see if he noticed that members of the LGBTQ community were switching to Ello:

"'Yes, we’ve been hearing about the Facebook drama too over the last few days,' Budnitz said. 'Ello welcomes the LGBTQ community and we’re very excited to see so many people moving over!'

"After a group of Radical Faeries signed up a couple of days ago, Budnitz has been watching an uptick in queer users joining Ello—'which makes us very happy,' he notes. 'There does seem to be a bit of an avalanche since then.'"

Facebook spoke to LGBTQ activists last week regarding the name-change policy, but did not relent. There is a Facebook protest planned for Oct. 2, at City Hall in San Francisco.

What's wrong with using your real name?

There are many reasons why a person would not want to use his or her real name on Facebook, including not wanting to be cyberstalked or abused by a former partner or family member; no longer identifying with a birth name or identity; and concerns about risking employment due to personal activity, just to name a few. Many feel safer with an assumed identity, or risk discrimination if they use a legal name.

Users may also want to skirt Facebook's data mining. As the Verge points out:

"Fake names, fake ages, fake interests — all these inaccuracies interfere with the company's ability to accurately target advertisements. Facebook wants to build the world's most comprehensive database of people. If the information is current and correct, Facebook could eventually become a place where people bank or vote or even file taxes. If it's filled with errors, it nears uselessness — at least, as far as advertisers are concerned.

What are the upsides to Ello?

Besides not forcing users to be represented by their legal names, which they may no longer identify with, Ello is not selling data gleaned from your account to advertisers, data brokers or others.

"You are not a product," is the cheeky conclusion to Ello's manifesto.

Users are not swamped with advertisements as they scroll through the network, and no longer have to make the compromise, "free service in exchange for valuable personal data."

(However, Ello does in fact collect your data for its own use, purportedly to improve the site's features.) And although the collection is anonymous, and not sold for profit, the site does state that there are some third parties, including law enforcement, that it will share information with.

What's wrong with a few ads?

It’s not just the advertisements that stream through your feed, it is the fact that Facebook tracks what sites users visit, even when they’re not logged into the social network. As the Wall Street Journal points out:

"While other websites keep track of individuals who stop by, noting them by their computers, the difference is that Facebook has real names—allowing it to do more with the information that accumulates about a person's browsing and shopping habits. Facebook, meanwhile, has grown intoan advertising juggernaut, with expected revenue of $12.2 billion this year, putting it in direct competition with publishers for ad dollars."

They’re making billions by tracking movement online to better create targeted ads. It’s more than a little creepy. It is manipulative to the point that online retailers are resisting how much data Facebook can collect.

What are the downsides?

The downsides, as Not Your Ex/Rotic points out on Tumblr, are that the site lacks privacy controls. Users may be able to control what data Ello collects, but they cannot control who sees their posts, or block those who are abusive. From Ello's @WTF section:

"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."

This, as Not Your Ex/Rotic points out, leaves users open to abuse with little recourse:

"... there are specific elements of Ello’s privacy settings, deliberately designed, that make Ello actually way more unsafe than Facebook, Twitter, or other social media outlets and CMSes. And in our rush to embrace a Facebook replacement we need to be aware of what we are at risk for when using Ello.

"Ello deliberately does not have any sort of personal privacy settings, and it does not have any sort of features to block or report individuals, nor any way to consent to being followed."

Ello does have a set of rules on its @WTF page, recently added an email reportabuse@ello.co, and will soon be adding new privacy tools.

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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