WTF is Ello, the new ads-free social network?

Nobody actually knows what it's for, but everybody wants an invite

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Ello: is anybody out there?

A strange fever gripped certain parts of the online world yesterday. Everything anybody wanted to talk about was Ello; as in, "Do you have an invite to Ello?" "Can you invite me to Ello?" "What does this Ello thing actually do?" Say hi to Ello, the newest private members' club on the internet.

Right now, Ello is probably the most popular social network that nobody has access to. Created as a no-ad alternative to sites like Facebook, Ello looks like a cross between Twitter (it uses @ handles) and Tumblr (you can post GIFs – and porn). It calls itself "simple, beautiful and ad-free". While it's currently invite-only, BetaBeat reports that it is experiencing sign-up requests of about 31,000 users an hour. 

So what makes Ello different from other social networks? Its manifesto – which you have to sign up to before requesting an invite – gives a few clues: 

"Your social network is owned by advertisers. Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold."

"We believe there is a better way... 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."

But the main thing right now? Nobody actually on Ello understands what it's for. Some people are posting anime GIFs. Some people are using it like a blog. Because this is the internet, people are posting cat pics. It's a free-for-all. It's simultaneously exciting but terrifying; like when you first joined Myspace and went around friending everybody you knew in school, including your weird lab partner from chemistry. Bizarrely, it's also created a feedback loop of Ello users complaining about Ello on Twitter and Twitter users asking for Ello invites:

Ello's spike in popularity this week has been boosted by what's been called "The Great Gay Facebook Exodus". LGBTQ users have fled the social network, alienated by Facebook's recent decision to disable the accounts of drag performers who use their stage names instead of their "real" names. People are sick of social media being used to flog products, brands or (worse) "personal brands", and increasingly suspicious of how their personal data is being mined for profit. Ello's pro-you, anti-ad stance couldn't have come at a better time.

But because the internet hype cycle is capable of running itself into the ground in 24 hours and under, people have already started poking holes in Ello. Its layout is a "design disaster". For a company that promotes a more welcoming and diverse social network, it also appears to have been built by faceless white dudes.

And like vultures to carrion, brands have already started signing up to Ello, like speaker manufacturers Sonos. Even Ello co-founder Paul Budnitz has an Ello account for his bicycle shop. These brands (probably) haven't paid to advertise on Ello, but isn't their very presence on an ads-free network somewhat counterintuitive to the Ello manifesto? 

There are already theories that Ello's ad-free site won't remain ad-free for long, especially seeing as its seed funding was provided by a venture capital firm. As technologist Andy Baio writes: "VCs aren't like Kickstarter backers, or even like angel investors... Ello will inevitably be pushed towards profitability and an exit, even if it compromises their current values."

Not that this diminishes the Ello craze. The frenzy around the site has grown to the point where people are selling Ello invites on eBay. Is this the new Facebook we've been waiting for? Probably not. But I can't remember the last time people were so hyped about a new social network that positions itself on such a radically different ideology to its competitors. So the ride to inevitable disappointment looks pretty fun, at least. 

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