Ello kiddies: Examining a utopian ad- and brand-agnostic future of social

Picture credit: Ello

You are not a product.

Meet Ello. With this declaration of intent this new, hip, invite-only social network has gotten plenty of traction over the past weeks for one key reason: it is fiercely opposed to brand dollars.

"Your social network is owned by advertisers", the firm's manifesto reads. "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."

It’s claiming to be the ‘anti-Facebook’, and with good reason. Have you noticed a change in your personal Facebook account lately? If you like 100 brands, all faithfully posting material at least once a day because that’s what their social media handbook says, your news stream gets far too clogged.

Wired’s Mat Honan liked everything he could find on Facebook for two days, as a social experiment (pun intended). It soon became a nightmare. Every time you like something, a related idea pops up. If you like that, another one appears. It’s never ending.

“As I went to bed that first night and scrolled through my News Feed,” Honan wrote, “the updates I saw were (in order): Huffington Post, Upworthy, Huffington Post, Upworthy, a Levi’s ad, Space.com, Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Verge, Huffington Post, Space.com, Upworthy, Space.com.”

Want to know what your friends did today? Friends? They went a long time ago. Thus, Ello would argue, Facebook is broken.

You are not a product.

It’s happening elsewhere too – and to earn your crust as a marketer you should already be on this stuff. Instagram has unleashed UK ads, although a spokesperson said it was only being given to brands who were already adding value to the network. How long before the goalposts are moved there? Twitter’s much more real-time, but ads are definitely there.

Eventually everyone needs funding - regardless of the platform a model will have to be found eventually

Ello is looking to eschew all this. The question is: can it?

After all is said and done, social networks need to make profits. After Facebook bought Instagram, it gently pushed in that direction. Sooner or later this will have to become a priority for Ello, unless they can snaffle venture capital funding.

The truth is Ello did – $435,000 in seed funding from FreshTracks Capital in March – yet even that’s being criticised. Aral Balkan, the founder of ind.ie, used his personal site to state he was quitting Ello because of this, and urged others to do the same. Why? Because VCs don't give their money away at the drop of a hat. There has to be an exit strategy, Balkan argued, not in line with the firm's goals.

Addressing Ello founder Paul Budnitz specifically, he wrote: “I’m sorry, but by taking venture capital you have made a crucial mistake that is incompatible with the goals you set out in your manifesto, and I will not support yet another venture-capital funded network only to be disappointed at the time of the inevitable exit.”

David Parkinson is Nissan head of digital for Africa, Middle East and India. He notes that some platforms, all singing with ads and brands, have still not turned a profit.

“Eventually everyone needs funding, so regardless of the platform then a model will have to be found eventually,” he tells MarketingTech in an email. “Instagram has just launched theirs, and brands are hijacking Snapchat story feeds as we speak.”

Parkinson adds: “[The] question is how. [Ello] could go for donations or subscriptions, or they could try an open source model, but the reality is there will have to be some hard decisions when their current investment model runs dry.”

You are not a product.

So is this the future of social? Brand- and ad-neutral hubs? If we see it as inevitable a company needs to make money rather than survive off VC investment, then the answer is probably no. Don’t give users big ads, because they won’t like it. Don’t try and pass ads off as content, because they’ll like it even less. And whatever you do, don’t try and force a product onto them like a certain company in Cupertino did.

There is a place for monthly payments when the value exchange is there. That becomes the challenge and trade off with privacy versus free

Let’s go back to your Facebook feed, with brand after brand, irrelevant post after irrelevant post clogging it up. Maybe it’s not the network that’s the problem, but the user. Social thought leader Brian Solis summed it up nicely in a post on LinkedIn.

“There are many who blame Facebook and its algorithm for what could be best described as an eroding experience,” he wrote. “I take a large part of the responsibility for the experience I have here and on other social networks. I, like many, over-friended.

“Not having the heart to unfriend has also made it difficult for improving the experience. Whose fault is that? Am I to blame Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg? Am I to blame people who add noise to my feed?”

For Parkinson, the equation’s turned on its head. It’s not so much forcing people to pay, or giving them an unattractive trade off, but offering a solid value exchange.

“My opinion is the social networks that have survived and thrived are those that naturally link into our differing behaviours and produce an online platform that allows that to happen,” he says. “So users changing behaviours, no, but users accepting their perceived lack of privacy – I think that’s the real question that Ello has opened up, and that will prove an interesting debate.

“When you look at freemium models that are thriving today, like Spotify, then there is a place for monthly payments when the value exchange is there. That becomes the challenge and trade off with privacy vs free,” he adds.

Parkinson notes in a LinkedIn post he predominantly uses four social networks; Facebook for friends and family, Twitter for wider social and digital; Instagram for “pictures of vanity”, as he puts it; and LinkedIn for work. All fill an appropriate gap. Ello will hope there’s enough value in their proposition to add to users’ lists.

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29 Sep 2014, 9:25 p.m.

It's certainly possible for there to be an ad free social network, but I agree, the idea of having a commercial company do this seems...doubtful. If you're old enough to remember Usenet, there was a decentralized discussion system not owned by anyone. Something like that, but more like what users would think of as a social network, could be done.