Ello is the tiny, ad-free anti-Facebook. Does it have a prayer?

September 26, 2014 Originally published on SFGate

Ello is having a moment.

Cute, no?

Cute, no?

Ello, in case you’re not fanatically dialed in to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tech zeitgeist, is the elegant, artist-created, exceedingly simple, Courier-obsessed, ad-free anti-Facebook everyone’s talking about – everyone, that is, who has the spare time to score an invite to the private beta, so they can kick the skinny e-tires on what is, at this point, no more than a quaint idea, a baffled puppy in a land of dragons, all yappy and cute until the novelty fades, the next tech tingle comes along and everyone realizes they really don’t have the bandwidth to welcome yet another social media service into their lives, because OMG iPhone 6 and Thom Yorke has a new album and shiny shiny hey look over there.

Ello, sighingly, has a long way to go.



But Jesus with a boring status update, give it a chance, will you? After all, Ello is still in beta. It’s got a thousand bugs, a thousand more known shortcomings and they never promised it would be your new best Friendster, so pipe down, haters.

Besides, remember how homely Facebook looked when it first hit the public domain? And unlike Facebook, which just had a very unpleasant tussle with the LGBT community, Ello lets you choose whatever user name you want. Give the kid a minute to breathe, would you?


Or, maybe not. It would appear that all is not what it seems when it comes to Ello’s charming, bootstraps-and-a-dream backstory. As Ello early adopter @Waxpancake so helpfully pointed out, Ello.co has already taken $435,000 in VC seed money (stealth mode, baby), way back in January. They will presumably need many millions more to fix all those shortcomings and make the thing work at any sort of scale. They will, presumably, be asked to try and pay some of that cash pile back.

"The Facebook" circa 2004. Like a pair of Crocs, but for your computer!

“The Facebook” circa 2004. Like a pair of Crocs, but for your computer!

Hence, the obvious: How can Ello possibly remain ad-free and largely revenue-less, going forward? How can the boys of Ello keep saying “you’re not the product” when you being the product is the very essence of social media? Are they secretly hoping to build it just big enough to attract a multibillion buyout from Google and then scamper away, laughing?

Ah, hipster startups. It’s all fun and games until someone smashes your ideals with the sledgehammer of capitalism.

But maybe there’s more to it than that? Maybe the sudden flurry of attention Ello is receiving right now, coupled to the fact that it really does appear to be a genuinely independent idea borne of a tiny creative crew whose CEO, Paul Budnitz, builds hipster bikes and founded kidrobot – as opposed to, say, a dumb app blurted out by a gang of spoiled, sexist, rich-kid tech bros at a frat party (hi, SnapChat) – this would all seem to indicate something a bit more transgressive, even potentially transformative. You think?

Look: It’s impossible to say, at this point, if Ello really has a chance of toppling Facebook, or carving out its own niche, or if their egalitarian ideals can remain unpolluted by greed and fame and the undying appeal of a fleet of 911s for the bros.

Maybe it’s not so much that Ello is the perfect anti-Facebook we’ve all be aching for. Maybe it’s more of a reminder of just how much FB has become overly stale and domineering, a bit like Microsoft circa 2007 – a beastly, bloated monolith that somehow forced its way into everyone’s workflow and leaves no real choice. How quickly we forget: There’s more than one way to do this tech life thing. Right? Isn’t there?

Mark Morford

About Mark Morford