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Ello, The Ad-Free Social Network

Who Is Your Profile For?

There’s an old saying, and one which has become increasingly relevant in the social media age: if you’re not paying for something then you’re not the customer, you’re the product. It’s a truism evidently lost on the people who are outraged every time Facebook changes its layout, or Twitter slips a few more promoted tweets into your stream. It’s an outrage born of the misconception that simply using something a lot gives some kind of ownership over it, even if you contribute nothing but photos of your breakfast and misspelled Smiths lyrics.

Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and all the other major social networking sites aren’t looking for the best possible user experience, they’re looking for the perfect balance between what will keep people coming to the site while simultaneously giving the greatest possible access to marketers and advertisers. More users equals more data. Regardless of Zuckerberg’s lofty rhetoric about the elevation of humanity through sharing pictures of cats, you are only of worth to these sites insofar as you can be mined for data and then have stuff sold at you.

Enter Ello.

Ello.co is a new social network, but in appearance and ethos it’s really a call-back to the first breaking of the wave of social networking onto mainstream society. Like the old college-exclusive Facebook it boasts a minimalist design and, perhaps most importantly, no ads. Cofounder Paul Budnitz has said that they were ‘inspired by the way Radiohead introduced In Rainbows, as a free download with the same pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth policy’ – and the idea of a social network inspired by a Radiohead album may tell you all that you need to know about these guys. But there is precedent for free internet services existing solely on the strength of donations, as Ello hopes to do; Wikipedia is perhaps the most notable example.

But Wikipedia is regarded by many as an essential, revolutionary aspect of the internet: the largest centralised repository of human knowledge in history. Can Ello claim the same intellectual pedigree? Or, at the very least, can it convince people that a trendy and ad-free social network is worth not only abandoning Facebook and Twitter et al. for, but also actually funding out of their own pocket?

The question Ello raises, therefore, is the place of social media as not just another avenue of communication but as a place where we construct identities – or have identities constructed for us. In positing Ello as not just an alternative social network but as the anti-Facebook, the founders are making a clear distinction between ‘Facebook people’ and ‘Ello people.’ In allowing their profiles and actions to be mined and sorted in profiles for ad targeting, the latter group are defining themselves (or allowing themselves to be defined) as passive consumers. Ello isn’t about being social so much as it is about being independent, about being pro-active. Ello has made a point of users' freedom with regards to the name they use, a definite swing at Facebook's recent controversies in that area.

Of course it’s worth noting that Facebook and Instagram and all the others were also once uber-hip mini-communities free of ads and committed to self-expression, until economic reality set in. The same crowd of Vice-reading graphic designers who are now snapping profile pics for their Ello page with their vintage Leicas were once also fawning over the last cool new thing. The larger these places grow the tighter the squeeze into their rigorous ideals becomes, but if Ello can maintain its admirable ethos (assuming that it garners enough support to press against the current bubble it exists in) then it could incite a genuine conversation about the role of social media in our lives. In a world where Facebook is launching drones and Snapchat is bringing you the news, it would be nice to have a site dedicated to that old-fashioned social media ideal: a place where people can see what kind of person you are.


Douglas is an English Literature graduate who has written about everything from music to food to theatre, now a content creator for Social Media Frontiers. No topic too large or too small. Follow him @DouglasAtSMF.

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Ello, The Ad-Free Social Network Reviewed by Douglas Clarke-Williams on Friday, September 26, 2014 Rating: 5
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