What began as a private social network for a group of seven artists and developers who wanted a way to connect as friends is now a public benefit corporation boasting millions of followers while still in beta.
Meet Ello. Its founders call it “a revolutionary social network that is transforming how people connect.” Committed to being ad-free and to never collecting or selling user data, Ello was built to be different. Chronology, not algorithms, determine what content you see from the pages you follow, and in true Internet form, you can be whomever you want. Ello doesn’t require you to use your real name or disclose any information about yourself other than an email address that remains private and a user name of your choice.
I recently talked with one of the founding members, Paul Budnitz, who now serves as its chief executive officer. Budnitz also owns and runs Budnitz Bicycles, a luxury bicycle company, and is well known as the founder of Kidrobot, the world’s premier creator of art toys, fashion apparel, and accessories. Budnitz is also an author of several books, exhibits as a photographer and filmmaker, and has founded more than a dozen companies.
The interview has been edited for publication.
Charity Singleton Craig: What is your elevator pitch for Ello?
Paul Budnitz: Ello is a revolutionary social network. We’re highly content-oriented, so we are about finding people who create stuff. We’re also ad-free; we value quality and beauty and positivity over advertising, manipulation, and exploitation, which is a lot of what we see in other networks. And we let people be whoever they want to be; you don’t have to use your real name because we don’t track data or any of that kind of stuff.
We are creating a really high-quality place to spend time, and that’s what’s important to us. Ello is a public benefit corporation. Legally we are a company with a mission, and the mission can supersede how we make money. Our mission is that we will never sell ads and never sell data and never sell our company to anyone that would do those two things. A lot of people in Silicon Valley hate us because we spend a lot of time pointing out the contradictions in what they do.
CSC: In the Ello manifesto, you say, “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.” What was the model for creating Ello? Is there anyone else out there who is doing it right?
PB: We really like Medium because of their focus on long-form content. We think that’s really cool. Besides that, the answer is no, or we would never have gotten to where we are in building this thing.
We like Medium, but we really don’t know their long-term business plan about user data, ownership of things you post, and those kinds of things. I think we are the only social network that has legally [committed] that we won’t do any of that stuff. The thing about advertising and data collection is not really about advertising and data collection because you might not necessarily care whether you see a few ads or whether or not someone’s collecting your data because you can think, “Oh well, I don’t have anything to hide.” That’s actually really true for a lot of people. But I think that a lot of the negativity that you experience on other networks—that feeling that a network is not fun to use—comes actually from what’s beneath the surface.
There are other companies that are doing great things, but not in our space.
CSC: Is there still a private version of Ello that the original users are still involved with?
PB: No. It morphed into what Ello is. All the original users—all the founders, the seven of us—are superactive. What’s interesting is that we’re quite selfishly making this entire company for us to use. Everything we do is geared toward what people like, but it’s also what we like.
CSC: Then how do you scale it? How do you grow Ello without losing the specific culture of Ello that made it so appealing to begin with?
PB: It scales itself. We can’t censor people, so we can’t control what people post, right? We also can’t control some people who come on our network and do things that aren’t super fun or nice. Although we do have rules. So we have a crew of people that keep an eye on people who are doing things they shouldn’t. The reality is it remains super positive. It is so incredibly positive that every time I say this in an interview, I think I’m baiting someone, and I’ll get in trouble for this. But I have somewhere near 300,000 followers on Ello—because I’m just one of the founders. In the history of the company, I’ve probably deleted five comments on my posts that were negative or weird. I’m not talking about people who disagree with what I say but people who are actually doing weird stuff. It’s so bizarre. I keep waiting for some weirdo to come on and do mean stuff, but it doesn’t actually happen.
I know partially one of the reasons why. See, what happens is if you have a social network or a network like ours with a lot of beautiful stuff and then there are ads sort of in between it, there’s this sense that you’ve been violated. Over time there’s this kind of negativity [that builds] because that’s essentially an attempt at manipulation, right? It’s not like something that we’ve asked for. So whether or not you think the ads are fine or good or whatever, they still pop up. I think that that creates an environment over time that just feels wrong. And I think it actually affects how people behave and feel they have a license to behave. Ello is totally self-policing. If the community sees someone doing something really negative, they can report it, and then we take a look. If the person is actually breaking our rules, then we will give them a warning or eventually even shut their account down if they are doing something fairly aggressive. But a lot of times we just ask people to stop doing things, and then they stop.
So it’s working out. It’s an interesting thing. I can’t completely explain it. Except to say if you create a nice place then people like to keep it clean.
CSC: Is there an ideal Ello user?
PB: No. One of the things we like to say is that Ello isn’t for everybody, but everybody is welcome. I’ve had a lot of interviews where people are like, “Facebook has said they want to sign up everybody in the world—is that your mission?” And then our answer is no. It’s not our mission at all. Emphatically not. The deal is that Ello has purposefully a more limited feature set. In fact, we don’t even have a mobile app. Our mobile app comes out this month. It’s web only right now. And we’ve been pretty slow to release new things because we’ve recognized that every time we create a new feature—let’s say reposting, which we added a month ago or so—it widens the circle of users and the types of people who will be interested in Ello.
We were very cautious that we had enough original content on the site before we put out reposting. When we did put out reposting, a lot of new users came on, and it was really positive. And so as we roll out new features like private messaging and private accounts and loves, which is sort of a bookmarking function, it changes things. Even on Ello right now, we’ve held off on content search because when you add content search, you add micro communities, and micro communities could grow up, and we didn’t want big insular communities early on.
The bottom line is everyone’s welcome on Ello. Ello is highly weighted toward creative people, creative curators, people who are interested in creative people, people who just like discussion—because we have a lot of really great discussion. That’s where Ello is now, but what’s interesting is that as, say, [the feature] “Loves” come out, it becomes a great way to collect stuff that you love. Then when private messaging comes out, it’s a little easier to actually use with your friends. Then when the mobile app comes out, it will probably be ten times the size. So it’s a steady progression. Who Ello is for today and who Ello is in three weeks is going to be different, and it will be different three weeks after that, too.
CSC: What issues, problems, or challenges does Ello address in artistic or curatorial communities? Is there something about Ello that adds to or solves a problem for those kinds of communities that are both creating and curating?
PB: I think it solves two massive problems. The first one is that it’s beautiful and full screen. So if you want to curate things, Ello was built to be browsed full screen with gigantic images and with no ads and no interruptions. It’s one of the reasons there are so many visual artists on Ello; it’s just beautiful. And I don’t think there’s anything else like it. I know there isn’t where you actually have a robust social network combined with the ability to put up beautiful stuff and where you’re not interrupted by ads and lots of clunky stuff.
I’ll actually give you three reasons. The second is that Ello doesn’t own your content, and it has no right to do anything with it. In fact, if you post original content on somewhere like Facebook, they can actually use it in advertisements, and they have and they do. So [on Ello] you have control over what you put up.
But the third one, which I think is actually the biggest one, is that … and you probably know this … if you have a Facebook page that’s not a personal Facebook page … let’s say you’re a business or you’re a blog or you’re a musician or you’re an artist or a small-business owner or a craftsperson … and let’s say you work hard and you get 10,000 or 20,000 or 100,000 followers. Every time you post, only 1 to 2 percent of the people who follow you will see your posts. Unless you pay for ads.
And that’s happening and transitioning on all the big social networks. Whether it’s Tumblr or Pinterest, even Twitter now, it’s starting to change so that you can pay—you’re forced to pay—so that the people who follow you see what you post. That’s the business model. The people who are hurt most by that model are the curators, especially, and the people who create content and small-business people and small creators because they don’t have marketing budgets. Where if you’re a gigantic corporation, it’s much easier to pay for reach than to have to create something interesting so that people will actually want to follow you.
Ello doesn’t have anything like that. If you get 10,000 people on Ello to follow you, which is not terribly hard right now, all 10,000 of those people will see everything that you post. It’s just chronologic; there’s no algorithm. And if I follow you, I will see everything that you post back, so it makes it a really fun place to follow people because nothing’s ever hidden from you, either.
That’s actually the biggest one because on Ello the social network is actually really free, which is not true on the other networks. And the way we are eventually going to begin making money is a business model that is so different and also really in alignment with what users want, especially curators.
CSC: So how will Ello eventually make money?
PB: The way we think of Ello is that we want to always be in alignment with the people who use Ello, the community. Starting in 2016 we’re going to offer services and special features that people can pay for. So one example is social commerce. Let’s say you are an artist and you want to be able to sell your paintings to the people who follow you. You’ll be able to put a For Sale sign on any of your posts so people can click on it and buy it. So that’s in alignment, right? If I’m choosing to follow you and you’re my favorite illustrator, I might want to buy one of your posters. So that’s a really good thing. And that will have a store connected to it. And you’ll be able to search for things. You’ll be able to type in the word “poster” or “bicycle” or anything you want, and you’ll be able to find people who are selling things like that. And then Ello is going to take a very small transaction cut.
The other thing we’re going to do is charge for really advanced features. So if you want to manage multiple accounts simultaneously, that’s something we’d probably charge a dollar or two every time you add an account. So you can have one for your trip to Europe and one for your pet dog and one for your work. And each time you want to set up a new one, we may charge you a couple bucks to do that, which we think is a pretty fair deal. It’s not something that prevents you from using the network; it’s just something that only some people will want.
We polled a lot of people, and we actually think it’s going to be very profitable.
CSC: In your manifesto, you say, “We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.” How specifically does Ello attempt to connect creators and consumers? Does the system fail if there are not both creators and consumers? What happens if the balance between the two shifts?
PB: So, creators need an audience. It’s just something that all of us who make stuff love, right? But it’s not a black and white thing. I’m not only someone who creates things; I’m also someone who often wants to go and consume things, and wants to go find awesome things to look at and people to talk to. So it’s not just one thing or the other. It’s both things at the same time, and because of that, you can have a creative community that works well.
Originally for us, there were seven artists, then there were 100 artists, then there were many more that all talking to each other. You can also have a lot of people on there who are talking to those creative people. And you can just have a lot of people talking. And in my experience, looking at how Ello’s grown, I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t have something interesting about them. Maybe that’s just my faith in people, but it is my experience with people on Ello.
There’s a thing going on on Ello right now called Poetry Friday, and someone started it and there are now thousands of people writing poems—can you believe poems? I just keep watching this, and it’s totally organically happening. And it keeps spreading out, and there are just people writing poems, and some of the poems are brilliant, and some of them, well, I don’t think they’re brilliant, and I haven’t seen anyone be anything but supportive the whole time. So now we’ve got people writing poetry, and I can’t remember anywhere else in the last fifteen years where I’ve seen just regular people writing poems.
CSC: Shihoko Iida said, “Curators should be attentive to what is going on around the world, as art is part of our society and our lives, not something isolated and exclusive. Curators of contemporary art in particular should take responsibility for contextualizing the artists of our time, engaging with society and its various communities.” How does Ello fit within that framework?
PB: To me, Ello is anything but separate and exclusive. Ello encourages people to discover new things and also forces us—creative people or curators—to respond to people who we may or may not have expected in our “gallery.” You know, I think if you have a physical, land-based gallery, and you placed it on West 22nd Street in New York City, you’re pretty certain who’s going to show up. And the same thing for streets in Milan and everywhere else. But the Internet’s a different place. The nice thing about Ello is who you end up with is the community of people who organically become interested in whatever it is you’ve put up. And that at times is different, really different, than the people you might expect.
We can’t control our audience, and I think it’s a really great thing to lose that control, to be forced to talk to whoever happens to show up.