Facebook Says Goodbye, You Say Ello

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On Monday night I sat in the living room talking with friend and technology writer Taylor Hatmaker about whether she had heard of new anti-Facebook social media platform Ello. She had written days earlier about Facebook’s crackdown on the real name policy and how it disproportionately affects LGBT populations, so I thought she might be interested. We noticed a movement among our friends, the majority of whom are queer, towards this sparse but sleek new invite only social media platform and figured it was worth signing up, you know, just to see.

The next day we saw more and more invites being slung around Facebook and elsewhere. This was certainly something. She published a piece calling it The Great Gay Facebook Exodus and from there everything blew up.

Ello looks promising. People seem to like its minimalist design and creator Paul Budnitz, also the founder of toys-for-grownups line Kidrobot (as well as Budnitz Bicycles), seems to have just the right balance of enough-but-not-too-much hipster cred to carry it off. But the platform is new, buggy, and does not have a lot of the features that we have come to rely on in Facebook? So clearly it is a deep mistrust, even hatred, that is sending users to Ello in droves. So is our trust in Ello founded?

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On one hand Budnitz seems to embrace the influx of queer members and appears to be shaping what features they go live with next our communities in mind. He had heard of the Facebook naming drama and started paying special attention to his new user base after some Radical Faeries began signing up last week. And although he stresses that Ello was not built in response to anything Facebook or any other social media platform has been doing, they readily take this opportunity to provide something the giants lacks saying,

We are super-excited to see so many members of the LGBTQ community joining Ello. So awesome!

…Ello doesn’t care who you are, what your sexual preference or gender is, and it does not make us more money if we did know. We don’t require (or even ask) our users for their sex, age, gender, location (we don’t store it), or anything else. We don’t geolocate each of our users individually and store that data. You can be anyone you want on Ello.

This is a gif Budnitz actually posted in his Ello feed. Awesome or horrifying?

This is a gif Budnitz actually posted in his Ello feed. Awesome or horrifying?

One of the first promises they have made is to safeguard users saying:

Some of the queer users on Ello have asked us to add some additional privacy functions to Ello, so they can block specific users from seeing their profile. We totally understand why this is important, and have moved this to the very top of our list. User blocking and new privacy functions will be live very soon (and may already be live the time your article is published).

Together this all sounds dreamy.

Not everyone is convinced. Users have already joined and left due to blocking not yet being in place. Others merely have concerns. Andy Baio, founder of the popular Portland based technology festival XOXO, expressed several in a letter he posted to Ello itself:

The About section makes it seem like Ello was built independently, a group of artists making something for themselves, presumably funded by volunteer effort and maybe a seed investment from Ello president and CEO Paul Budnitz…

But a little digging shows a much more predictable source: they took a $435,000 round of seed funding in January from FreshTracks Capital, a Vermont-based VC firm that announced the deal in March.

Why is this problematic?

…VCs may invest in things they think are interesting or want to exist, but they primarily invest money in startups to get a return on their investment, on behalf of their limited partners. That return usually takes the form of an exit: an acquisition or an IPO…

…But they completely fail to disclose how Ello is being funded now, which matters just as much, if not more, as any future revenue plans…

…At the moment, Ello is a free, closed-source social network, with no export tools or an API, fueled by venture capital and a loose plan for paid premium features. I think it’s fair to be skeptical…

Nevertheless the surge continues with technology sites beyond a queer audience debating Ello’s merits. It is a platform currently struggling to keep up with the influx of new members, despite Budnitz’s assertion earlier this week that, “Ello can handle a LOT of traffic. No promises that their won’t be any hiccups, but this is not a concern.” Seeing as Thursday saw a suspension of any new invites it seems concern has grown. But Hatmaker, who is quickly becoming the go-to tech journo on Ello, extolls their imperfections as a sort of zeitgeist that reminds us of the early and exciting days of internet communication. “FTR, right now Ello is sort of like a broken hybrid version of proto-Tumblr x Twitter,” she says, “but all of my queer friends are hanging out there so…” Is nostalgia enough to distract us from the very real, and often quite annoying, growing pains the fledgling network is experiencing? Is a clean interface too clean when we can’t easily navigate to things as basic as search, FAQ or the oft-referenced Manifesto?

Ello has plenty of bugs that foil and frustrate, which is understandable; no one could have anticipated the current influx. And in some ways the broken inefficiency even seems rather quaint. But mashing to keyboard, and perhaps your head against the wall, when your search turns up nothing or the scroll won’t keep scrolling won’t seem cute for long. User @sallysallysally expressed her frustration with “…Captain Obvious reporting for duty: this thing is buggy as fuck and my feeble Virgo brain can’t take it,” while @turtlej complained, “What genius decided to have a hidden post button? Seriously fucked up.”

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These things are likely temporary. It’s really Ello’s core functionality that matters and Budnitz seems amenable to curating these based on the needs of Ello’s user base. A network as small and new as Ello is also agile enough to respond and implement fairly quickly. So the question becomes: What do we want?

Upon joining my first post on Ello was to ask, “There are a lot of features we’ve gotten used to on FB that aren’t here yet. What are you looking for most? What are some new features that FB doesn’t have that you would like to see here?” And though I did not specify features for the LGBT community I would estimate that my friends and followers in the early days of Ello adoption are 50-95% queer.

Beyond the blocking feature, the biggest need/wants I’ve seen are for a mobile apps and events. No matter that Ello’s responsive design actually lends itself quite well to mobile viewing, folks are used to being led to water with a dedicated, downloadable thing. And Facebook’s events calendar/invites have become so ubiquitous that checking your Facebook has become tantamount to checking your schedule for many of us, at least for non-work related activities.

Alternately, we seem quite divided on Facebook’s “like” feature with some users, such as @sts saying, “I DO NOT want a like button. i DO want private messaging,” while others such as @jondamon “…wanna like shit, and unsubscribe to ppl. already.” Tongue-in-cheek as this may be, there is most certainly uncertainty about the desire to “like” (or “love” as the feature is to be called when Ello implements it). Does its ease make it insincere? Indeed, sincerity appears to be one of Ello’s biggest selling points. Though the word isn’t necessarily used anywhere the internet has become so large and impersonal that the “friendly yet invite-only” platform presents itself as such in a way giants such as FB never could. Is our rush to it then (comparable, in some small way, to gentrification) ruining the very thing we so badly want?

qpdx-ello-feed

Even that realization, however, does not stop us from wanting, from comparing Ello’s limited features to those we have become familiar with. And here is what Ello says is in its roadmap:

User blocking
Inappropriate content flagging
Audio integration (Soundcloud)
Private Accounts
Rich (multimedia) commenting
Mobile web refinements
Repost w/ author attribution
Notification Center
Online/offline user designation
Love + Love bookmarking stream
Emoji index
Video integration (Youtube, Vimeo, Instagram & Vine)
@@ Private Messaging
Auto-push posts to other networks
iOS & Android mobile apps

These seem reasonably universal and echo some of my chief needs, which were stated even more precisely by @osworth: “I can tell you what I don’t want. Clutter. Videos that play. An algorithm that decides what I see. What I do want—opposite threading. My friends to all jump ship. The ability to easily share content (since content is what I do).”

Besides the recent “real” name policy the feed algorithm has been Facebook’s most maligned recent decision. But where I see the naming policy as clearly problematic and something FB has done solely for the benefit of the company and not for users, the feed is a bit more complex. Right now I can go through my Ello feed and see everything since I last logged in without too much trouble. But that is because I have less than 150 friends. What happens when we reach the 1000+ level, a place many of us inhabit on all our other social media spaces? Ello recommends that you only place about 60 in your friends list. But I use social media very much as a media tool and want to see content from a host of other sources, even if I could cap my real friends at 60. So what is the solution here that isn’t evil? Multiple lists? Putting an algorithm on your “noise” feed but leaving your “friends” untouched? Is there something more magical?

LGBT users, and users in general, are fed up with corporate social media. We want the fairy tale, so when we see an opportunity to create our own online utopia we take it. But Ello is not that magical safe space made just for us. It, like the rest of the world, both on and offline, a place to explore with our wariness goggles on. It’s a place where, seemingly, we have a voice and can help shape policy and innovation. What shape we make it, what shape Paul Budnitz and his VC backers allow us to mold, is yet to be seen. I’m excited. But I am also skeptical.


This has been the ninety-seventh installment of  Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to web sites you have to favorite to any other fun shit we can do with technology. Header by Rory Midhani.

Alley Hector is a writer and Web Developer based in Portland, Oregon where she has lived since the dawn of queer time. Past projects have included editing Just Out magazine and founding and editing local queer news and events blog qPDX.com. When she's not pursuing nerdy hobbies you can find her enjoying a microbrew at a vintage arcade or running around town on her little 80s Bridgestone road bike. Get in touch with Alley on Twitter or Instagram.

Alley has written 20 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. I haven’t tried it out yet mainly because I’m skeptical. The VC piece is not something to overlook. That very important detail is what will ultimately make Ello into a money maker (probably with ads or things similar to FB) regardless of what the creators initially intended. Also, I do social media for a part of my job and have a few pages on FB for queer groups and events. Unless EVERYONE leaves and goes to Ello, I don’t see how this will work at least for my personal and professional life.

  2. The only reason I am even still on FB is because the companies I work for use it as a main communication platform. I wanted to leave when, after 4 years of showing my LGBT activism by having”EQUALUTY” as my middle name on there, FB logged me out and demanded a removal of it in leiu of just my real name. This felt like a violation of my identity. I can only imagine how drag queens, trans people, and other people who might use names other than legal birth names feel. This policy is transphobic, and discriminatory against anyone who isn’t cisgendered and heterosexual with no reason to change a name that isn’t yet legal.

  3. just so people are aware there’s at least one other option. i’ve been following their development since they launched their first beta and even though i have an account the only person i have on the network is my anti-authoritarian code happy uncle (he’s the best).

    i’m really hoping it catches on because you can’t have a social network without your friends on it, but ya’ll can check it out for yourselves

    https://diasporafoundation.org

  4. I think the way it will work without ads is by charging users. We’ve come to expect a lot of free things on the Internet, but I paid what I considered to be a lot of money for tweetbots desktop version, and um, I don’t even barely ever use Twitter anymore. But it made it easier and better and I thought it was worth it at the time. I would do that for a considerably better more private social media experience. With that said I’m totally broke and jobless right now so… I’ll splurge on that when I fix those things soon. Ps I’m dying to become an A+ member…. Can’t wait till I can afford to!

  5. i dunno. it’s trying too hard to be minimal and not focusing enough on the actual user experience. sooo many bugs. also, app.net tried the whole subscription-based social network thing but that didn’t really pan out either. i don’t think ello will stick around.

  6. I don’t like the way ello is being promoted to LGBT folk as in “leave Facebook, join us instead.” Obviously not everyone I know is gay, and I’m still going to use Facebook to communicate with my family. I never want to go through the pain of teaching my mother to use another social network.

    Also, does someone have a simple explanation of how Facebook tracks “real names”? Because I did not use my real last name on Facebook for years, same as most of my other teacher friends, and none of us ever had our profiles targeted. I also have a huge number of friends who have absolutely ridiculous middle names on Facebook (I don’t think there is anyone with the legitimate middle name of Dinosaur or NotOnTheStreetsNoMore), and those have been around for ages too. My dog has a Facebook profile. If all these things can fly and Facebook hasn’t bothered to flag them, then how are LGBT people being disproportionally effected? Is it asshole kids reporting and trying to out their peers? Is there an asshole in their office trying to prove a point? I know I sound naive here, but it seems like it would be hard and expensive to track…Like I said, I didn’t use my real name on Facebook for years. How could anyone have known it wasn’t my real name unless someone I know in real life reported it?

    • Some drag queens’ stage names ping the bot as “fake,” and sometimes legal names do, too – Robin Kills The Enemy had her account suspended because her name wasn’t “real” enough for Facebook. (That was a few years ago.)

      I think LGBT+ people are disproportionately impacted because we’re less likely to use our legal names, for fear of being outed, or trans people whose documents still list an incorrect given name.

  7. I’ve been keeping track of Ello’s privacy options or lack thereof – the response to that post is what semi-directly prompted Ello to add plans for privacy and blocking controls, but they’re not there yet. (Also I’ve heard from everyone else about that post EXCEPT the Ello founders.)

    There’s been a lot more uncovered, including their vague plans to charge for privacy, and how their Facemaker meme thing is being used to upload unobscured porn. And already I’m being followed by advertisers with Ello accounts, so the whole NO ADS thing is some BS.

  8. So I tried to give away my invites on Facebook, but nobody wanted them. 🙂

    If anyone wants an invite, follow me on Twitter (@writer_jenna), and I’ll follow you back. DM me your email address, and we’ll be ello buddies.

    Fair warning: It’s kinda boring right now.

  9. I signed up for Ello because I always want to play with new toys. I laughed when everyone on Facebook was like “and you don’t have to use your real name!” like it was some big revelation… Don’t any of them remember the internet circa ten years ago? My main Twitter, my LiveJournal, etc., all use assumed names, or names other than the one on my passport, or sometimes just silly things like bits of song lyrics or nicknames from high school. (Frances J. is not my legal name.)

    I miss that internet. I guess that’s why I signed up for Ello.

  10. I’ve been following Ello’s WTF documentation and a subreddit dedicated to this social media network for a bit before I received an invite.

    I think that it’s really important for new users to remember that Ello is still in BETA TESTING . So I am surprised at how many people seem genuinely upset by the recent lack of functionality, bugs, and features that get updated / tweaked / announced on a daily basis. I feel this is to be expected from any service in beta.

    I hadn’t seen that rainbow gif before. It’s well intentioned but still cringe worthy.

    Anyhow, I’m also giving Ello a shot, and I’m looking for more friends there. Find me @lorainekv

    • Beta is the perfect time to receive feedback, because the expectation is that they will change and adjust. If people gave criticism when it was completed, others will complain that “oh you should have said that in beta, then they could have changed it”. Can’t win.

      Ello’s entire marketing scheme is based on privacy (which they now may want you to pay for, according to The Guardian). This is 2014, where we just had a couple of months of high-profile news around Internet harassment. To not have basic functionality out of the gate, such as blocking and private accounts (there’s “private to the outside world” but that’s not private), AND to somehow claim both “privacy yay” and “all your content is public”, is dodgy as all hell.

      • I don’t think that Lorraine’s point was that no one should make comments about functionality – that’s a major point of a beta, after all!

        But server downtime? Needing invites? Functionality that doesn’t quite work? That’s 100% expected in a beta!

  11. I feel like having multiple privacy filters is very basic functionality for a social platform. Not even having full-public/full-private like Twitter? Who wrote this thing, and have they never heard of things you don’t tell your family?

  12. I’ve joined – mainly because someone nice sent me an invite and I like the thought of seeing a new social media platform evolve from the early stages. I’m not a big social media user (though I love Twitter) and only had a few months on Facebook back in 2003 or something – I didn’t like it at all.

    Will follow the social/political stuff with interest but right now I’m interested in seeing what this does.

    If anyone else is on there and wants to be friends, I’m here: https://ello.co/littlered

  13. Personally, and I don’t say this very often, I think everyone just needs to chill. I get that a lot of us here and out there are real fired up about Facebook’s bullshit, but I think a lot of that is being unfairly fanned upon what was until a nanosecond ago a quiet niche project in early beta. Great code is not built in a day. Ello is neither a demon nor a savior, it’s just an option. For now, I’m not going to put anything sensitive on there like my name, my face, my social security number and bank pin, but I’m going to have an account, and play with it, and hope that it gets robust enough to be a home. In the meantime, y’all can text me if you want to see my cute face so bad. 😛

  14. Alley Hector you’re writing articles?????? I am so slow, I’ve missed all the boats! Congrats!

    I don’t have much to say about Ello. Don’t think it’s gonna replace facebook. But if it does… I’ve got one. I’m @claire7 on there too, come find me 😉

  15. I don’t think we can truly have an environment safe from commercial interests unless we run it ourselves, and fund it ourselves. No, I’m not talking about a strict subscription system per se, but more of a no one turned away for lack of funds type policy. Those with more can pay more. (Hmm. Sounds familiar.) Ideally we can leverage our hacker spaces and possibly benevolent businesses (I know, risky) to make this a reality.

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