ello: Can Social Media Exist Without Ads?

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A version of this story aired on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Vermont’s known for its green pastures, farmsteads, and roads free of billboards. The founders of the new social network ello live in the state, and they want to bring Vermont-like serenity to the internet.

“We set out to prove that a social network will survive and thrive that doesn’t have an business model of selling ads to its users,” said CEO and co-founder Paul Budnitz. He owns a bicycle company in Vermont, and he’s also the founder of Kidrobot, which makes high-end art toys. Budnitz said ello’s creators initially launched the site for their circle of friends. They wanted a clean online space to exchange large images and longform text. The site has been growing steadily for about a year, he said. But that changed last week, when news stories about a group of disenchanted Facebook users mentioned ello as an alternative, and set off a stampede of interest.

“We’re getting 40,000 combined signups and requests per hour…so it’s a lot,” Budnitz said with a chuckle.

You need an invite from a friend to use ello, and that amps up the allure. Many ello users I talked to, like 24-year-old Charity Walden, say they joined simply out of curiosity. “I use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat,” she said — and now ello rounds out that group. “I think it’s really cool to be there at the beginning, and see how it’s developed.”

The spike of interest in a new social network also points to intensifying concerns over issues like data mining, online bullying, and the protection of privacy. Users can’t make their ello accounts private, but the founders say that’s coming soon. And ello’s stated mission is to be profitable without selling user data — a claim that attracts scrutiny. Once it was learned that ello received venture capital money in January, the critics went to town.

Aral Balkan is one of them. He’s a privacy advocate who’s building an independent operating system. Balkan says he doesn’t want to support a VC-backed social network that will face pressure to balloon in size and value.

“If you take venture capital, that means at the very beginning, you had to present your exit plan, because that’s when the investors make their money back. Even before you built the thing, you’re selling the people that you hope to get to use it,” he said.

After just a few days, ello user Jimmy Chan is also losing interest in the site, but for a different reason — he says he’s not getting much out of it. “Some of my friends are jumping in to say ‘You’re all still here?’ as if it’s Monday morning, and people are still in their living room from a Sunday night party,” he joked. Chan says ello probably won’t be fun for him until it picks up traction with more friends, and offers different features.

The site’s being tweaked and re-worked in full view of a rapt online audience. The founders are responding to complaints and requests as the site takes shape. Co-founder Paul Budnitz has a relatively chill attitude about the critiques: “I’m in Vermont, not in Silicon Valley.” He’s confident that ello can make money through a “freemium” model. Users would pay for extra features like the ability to access multiple accounts with a single login.

Budnitz maintains that the founders don’t feel undue pressure to compromise their ideals. He says they’re content to stay small and modestly profitable in a Vermont kind of way.

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