Say Ello to the anti-Facebook

Ello seems to have come out of nowhere.

The creators are designers and artists. Its CEO, Paul Budnitz, makes toys. There's no big marketing push and no obvious ties to Silicon Valley. These are not the typical building blocks of a hot new social network.

Yet, people are joining it in droves. In the past few days, Ello has seen an incredible influx of new users. Its network more than quadrupled in size and there's no sign of it slowing down. As I'm writing this, I'm told that Ello has gained nearly 20,000 new users in just the past hour. A quick scan of my Twitter and Facebook feeds reveals a whole slew of my friends have joined the service, which is a remarkable achievement considering Ello is still at the invite-only stage. Only existing users can invite those looking to sign up, which means it's mostly spreading by word-of-mouth. Ello had to stop taking invites because its servers were slammed. People are even selling Ello invitations on eBay for $100 a pop.

So what's the big deal with Ello? And why is it so popular all of a sudden?

The short answer: It's not Facebook.

In the past couple of weeks, Facebook has been on the receiving end of negative press for deleting profiles of drag queens for not following its "real names" policy. The company has stated that it's not targeting them in particular and is applying this rule to everyone, but it's enough to tarnish Facebook for some members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom have safety and personal reasons to hide their real names from public view. It's also a genuine concern for anyone who's a victim of stalking or online harassment.

Ello, however, does not have a "real name" policy. You can be whomever you want on it. Not only that, but it's also vehemently anti-advertising. Its manifesto ends with: "You are not a product."

"We want you to be exactly who you are," said Todd Berger, one of the designers for Ello. "We don't really care -- we don't want the data associated with the name because we're not selling it."

The recent dustup over real names is just another in a long line of complaints in Facebook's history. The splintering of Messenger into its own app, the increase in autoplay video ads on mobile, its past experiments on users and a generally sketchy track record when it comes to privacy have done plenty to damage Facebook's reputation over the years. While the exodus of many in the LGBTQ community might have been the catalyst for Ello's popularity, it appears that the very idea of a Facebook alternative is attractive enough to entice new users.

The Paint Ball Hosted By Kidrobot

Paul Budnitz, founder of Kidrobot, is also one of the minds behind Ello

That also happens to be the reason Budnitz and his friends created Ello. "We had just become really sick of other social networks," said Budnitz, who's also the founder of Kidrobot, a producer and retailer of designer toys. "We didn't want a place that was run by advertisers, a place that would mine our data. We just want a place that's simple and beautiful."

So Budnitz and a group of designers and developers (from Berger & Föhr and Mode Set respectively). created a private social network about a year and a half ago just for themselves and a few friends. But there was so much demand for it that the team decided to build a version for the public.

"When we started building Ello, we started with a few principles," said Budnitz. "The first is: no ads. A social network doesn't have to be complicated and it especially doesn't have to be that way if it doesn't have ads." He went on to say that when a network like Facebook shows ads, the advertiser is the customer, not you. "The thing that's being sold is the user," he said.

Additionally, because Budnitz and his team have strong design and art backgrounds, they wanted the site to look good. "I wanted something really clean and very different," he said. "I also wanted to deal with clutter." Berger added that Ello was also intended as a shared art space, and that's apparent almost immediately. It has a minimalist interface, with plenty of white space and a wide layout that really lets art and photos take center stage. And for all you GIF-lovers out there, Ello supports those animated images out of the gate.

In my first few hours with it, Ello feels a lot more like Tumblr than either Facebook or Twitter, but even that is not an accurate comparison. For example, even though you can leave comments, you can't "thumbs up" or "plus one" a post like you can on other services. "Interactions are actually real," said Budnitz. "You have a chat with someone." Still, Ello does plan on adding a "Love" button later on that works more as a bookmarking feature. On the whole, Ello is just very different from any of the other social networks I've seen.

You can move people between two streams: Friends and Noise. The Friends stream features large photos and long-form text, while the Noise feed is a fluid grid layout designed for browsing information quickly. So the folks you'd add to your Friends stream would be people you're really interested in, while Noise is just for quick news consumption. Similar to Twitter, you don't have to follow someone who follows you and vice versa. In fact, by default, Ello is completely open and anyone can follow anyone else.

That openness has resulted in the first big criticism against Ello: It doesn't have any privacy settings. So if I want to block someone or flag inappropriate content, I can't. That's an especially big pain point considering the reasons many flocked to it in the first place. However, Budnitz said privacy controls are coming soon.

"We were going to roll it out eventually," he said. "But with so many people joining, especially since we have all these new users where that sort of thing matters, we've pushed up the schedule." Plus, Budnitz said that Ello has a pretty strict set of rules already. "We have a zero-tolerance policy around hate, trolls, stalking and hurtful behavior." Still, it seems that the rules aren't entirely set in stone. In the initial policy, there was a statement of "No porn." Now, however, it's been reworded to allow for NSFW content, as long as it isn't something illegal, like child pornography.

Indeed, Ello is still very much in beta. Notifications, for example, currently clutter up the Friends stream and the Discover/Search feature is slow and buggy. The team is hard at work to fix these issues and introduce new features, many of which are listed in the publicly viewable Feature List. Several upcoming features include private messaging, bookmarking and the ability to embed SoundCloud audio and video from Vimeo or YouTube. As for mobile apps, those are coming too, but only after the team is happy with its web product. In the meantime, you can view Ello on your phone via a mobile browser.

Of course, Ello is not the first social networking alternative. Remember and Diaspora? They're still around and certainly have their fair share of fans, but they didn't quite take the world by storm. Ello has the buzz, but it takes resources to harness and sustain that momentum. If Ello doesn't plan to show ads, how will it make money?

Well, as far as initial financing goes, Ello did actually take some funding in the form of $435,000 from FreshTracks Capital, a VC firm in Vermont. That might sound some alarm bells regarding the direction of Ello and if it'll really remain true to its ad-free goals, but the VCs in question appear to be relatively hands-off, telling GigaOm that it's perfectly fine with Ello's current business plan.

And how does that plan go? Well, Ello will be free to use if you want the simple, no-frills experience, but if you want something extra, you'll have to pay for it. So, for example, if you wanted to manage multiple Ello accounts with a single login, that feature would cost you something like $2.

"Ello isn't designed to be perfect for everyone, and it'll never be perfect for everyone" said Berger. "But we're going to let you customize the environment that's suited for you and we'll sell that to you."

"We've already had thousands of different suggestions for premium features and a lot of them overlap each other," said Budnitz. "We already have people who are interested in paying us for them. Just based on that, we know that we can be profitable."

Even so, Budnitz has no plans to compete with Facebook.

"We're not trying to rule the world," he said. "We're not competing. We're just building this thing that we really want to use ... We don't need or want to be a $30 billion company. We just want to build a great business."

[Image credit: Getty Images]