Jason Grow for Al Jazeera America

Ask the Decoder: What is Ello?

A new ad-free social network promises to respect our data

Editor's Note: This is the third installment of The Decoder, a column that's part of the Living with Data series exploring how our online data is tracked, collected and used. Do you have questions about how your personal data is being used? Curious to learn more about your daily encounters with algorithms? Email The Decoder at or submit your question via the form here. Screen shots and links are helpful clues!

Over the course of about 20 minutes last Friday, a friend emailed, a few people posted in my Facebook News Feed, and my husband turned to me and asked, “What is Ello?” I knew something was up.

I joined Ello on Sept. 9, and I didn’t do much with it aside from set up my account; "i’ll try any platform once," is my bio line. Ello has existed in some form since the spring and opened to users in August. But last week something clicked, organic invites were reaching network scale, and the site started gaining traction and attention.

I thought I’d take this week of The Decoder to address some of the questions everyone seems to be asking about this new social networking site that puts the handling of our data front and center.

Ello doesn’t offer much new in the way of functionality. If you’ve used any social networks since LiveJournal, you’ll recognize parts of those sites in Ello. It is part blog, part status update, part conversations and part GIFs and emojis. Where it differs from other social network sites is in its philosophy: amid its monotype font and ample white space, you won’t see a single ad.

It’s not just an alternative to other social networks; it’s an alternative to the free business model that until now has dominated the social Web. Ello declares its anti-advertising premise, “Collecting and selling your personal information, reading your posts and mapping your social connections for profit is unethical.”

Ello’s manifesto echoes rhetoric that has been gaining traction for the past few years: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

Like almost every other website, Ello still collects some information to understand who its users are and where they come from in the service of improving the site. But in a novel move, Ello allows users to opt out of anonymous usage tracking entirely.

“You are not a product.”
Screenshot / The Decoder

Why Ello now?

The fundamental economics of the Internet are on everyone’s minds. Ello is catching our attention at a time when industry leaders — Apple CEO Tim Cook included — are taking up the rhetoric about personal data as a product as a competitive differentiator. My colleagues Ethan Zuckerman and Doc Searls are looking back at the Web we’ve built on advertising and encouraging us to explore alternative models beyond the ad-supported Web.

In the meantime, established social networks are doubling down on their business model. Announced this week, Facebook’s Atlas promises to consolidate a view of its users across devices with a single ID, replacing cookie technology. For individuals concerned about the use of our personal information, now is a good a time as any to explore alternatives.

Ello plans to support itself by introducing premium features that users can purchase for a one-time fee. While that may sustain the platform without ads, it introduces an interesting functional gap. Which features will come standard, and which will be available only for a premium? User blocking and private accounts are slated as forthcoming features, but will we have to pay to block our harassers?

Some interest in Ello seems to be tied to Facebook’s targeted enforcement of real name policies on the accounts of drag queens. LGBTQ allies and supporters have started an exploratory mission to find spaces online that align with their values and interests.

Interest may also stem from the fact that we’ve started to pay closer attention to the filtering of our feeds. Facebook’s manipulative experiments with emotion-based News Feed filtering caught our attention. And Twitter is hinting at new ways of introducing content and advertising into the once unfiltered timeline.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen fomenting interest in alternatives to our dominant platforms. Some had high hopes for the likes of, Diaspora*, Crabgrass and others. But interest in these platforms peaked before Edward Snowden and emotional contagion studies brought these data concerns to the forefront.

Who is Ello?

Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson writes on Ello, “Ello is getting so much attention precisely because it promises social media of a different politics.”

But Ello isn’t just some utopian manifesto, sprung out of goodwill and ideology. The site is built by Paul Budnitz (of Kidrobot and a luxury bicycle company) and a small team of co-founding creative technologists and designers.

As some have pointed out, it’s a platform designed by more white dudes with white dude assumptions about how social media should work. David Banks, a writer for Cyborgology, suggests, “We shouldn’t expect any more from Ello than we would from a luxury bicycle. By this I mean that it’ll be well-designed, fraught with race, class and gender bias and ultimately formed by the inevitable demands of capitalism.”

The site is backed by series A venture funding, as technologist and blogger Andy Baio uncovered. That means Ello will eventually need to turn a profit for its investors and before they exit, however they plan to do that.

Though Ello may offer an alternative, it is still a social network. And that starts with a particular confidence in Ello’s ability to make a better technology to reorganize society.

Ello | WTF

Should you join Ello? It’s worth checking out if you can get an invite. For the time being, it’s pretty buggy in beta. (I went to post a cat GIF while writing this, and Ello was down for maintenance.) But should you abandon all your other accounts for it? Not just yet. One thing is for sure: Websites change. Features are added, policies are updated, algorithms are tweaked, and social norms evolve. It seems that the team is receptive to feedback, so participation is one way to make this thing better.

What will Ello do with your data? Its principles sound promising, but actions speak louder than manifestoes. Who knows what it might do in the future? Ello’s “entire structure” may be, as the site says, “based around a no-ad and no data-mining policy,” but I’m not sure how we would know when or if this commitment is broken. How will Ello handle government requests for information, for example? If we don’t like what it ends up doing, Ello invites us to delete our accounts. But as we’ve learned from Facebook and everywhere else that keeps a tight grip through inertia and network effects, that’s easier said than done.

For now, Ello is full of some of the most thoughtful people in tech I know, experimenting with the form and talking about what it means to have a site like this crop up. If you care about the future of our personal data as I do, you should keep an eye on what’s happening with Ello. Even if the platform doesn’t take off, the ethos it’s tapping into just might.

Do you have questions about how your personal data is being used? Curious to learn more about your daily encounters with algorithms? Email The Decoder at or submit your question via the form here. Screen shots and links are helpful clues!

Living with Data

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