How social networking site Ello is changing the face of social media
Todd Berger and a handful of other Colorado-based creative innovators were fed up with Facebook and the privacy infringement culture of social media, so they created Ello. It's a gorgeously designed, ad-free piece of internet where today's greatest and most creative minds go to post photos of banh mi sandwiches and crushing beautiful neon skylines from the plush comfort of boutique coffee shops in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Just kidding. But that's what it seems like to the naieve user.
In actuality, Ello is a lot more than a design-o-phile's wet dream. In all that it does, it's the Anti-Christ to Facebook, subverting mainstream social media tactics and culture and replacing them with decidedly humanitarian imagery and messages. It's kind of a beautiful thing, especially given today's culture of self-congratulation, click bait, and needless sharing.
We talked with Ello co-founder Todd Berger about how Ello is a new kind of social media, the joys of minimalism, why Facebook is the most fucked-up place on earth, and how operating out of Boulder, Colorado has influenced Ello’s ethics and design.
What void does Ello fill in the social media landscape?
Currently, there is no space to connect, communicate, inspire, be inspired, that's totally ad free. The only spaces that do exist are spaces where the company whose products you're using is harvesting your data, selling your data to data miners, and selling you a bunch of ads.
So, when a company collects data and sells it, their customer becomes the advertiser, not the user of the product. So we totally want to flip the shirts on that, and make the user our customer.
Has your experience in Boulder, or being in Colorado impacted any of the design or the functionality of Ello?
Yeah, that's a good question. We're pretty big nature freaks. There's sort of various Boulder thinking hippie elements to Ello's atmosphere. We're kind of a bit old school Boulder in our philosophy, but our design aesthetic isn't so directly Boulder Colorado inspired. Our backgrounds in graphic design are very traditional, modernist, mid-century European based. So, our design is very refined, clean and minimal, but there's this correlation between used clean refined minimal spaces that's analogous to the mountain environment in simplicity and beauty, just the way it feels, in general. Other than that, we operate out of Boulder. This place is always afforded us the luxury to be really outside of the box thinkers. We've done a few things differently and the community has always really supported that.
Speaking of design, what’s your design philosophy, and why did you make Ello to be so minimalist and direct?
A lot of it is from Dieter Rams, who is a very famous designer, and something he always is that less better. So, how do you strip things away and remove clutter, but make things better? We're always trying to refine things, simplify them and make them cleaner and easier and more enjoyable of an experience.
Do you feel like that approach is why Ello has attracted a predominantly creative user? Is that intentional?
It's by design, by it's also by interest. I think creative people artists, designers, creators, people who write code, makers; there's complexity in all of their work, and when they go and present it, they like to present it in very tidy, clean minimalist spaces.
The art gallery is the perfect analogy and that's kind of the analogy we use to design Ello. You take an empty art gallery, there's supposed to be pure white space, and that's very much for a purpose. When you bring in the complexity of the art work, or whatever was made a sculpture, a painting a drawing, et cetera, it has this clean space to live and breath and be consumed by an audience, by a viewer. And we very much took that art gallery philosophy to our design of Ello. So, that the user who has creative content to share, has, in essence, this blank canvas which is super cool in a lot of ways. That approach is also a challenge, an art opportunity in itself. You get to come here and figure out what you're going to do with the space. How are you going to display your art? What kind of writing are you going to display? How are you going to interact to your friends? What kind of persona are you going to take?
Do you feel like that art gallery challenge would be alienating to your average social media user? Would the average Joe be more comfortable on Facebook just because your design philosophy seems to imply that people have creative content to share? Ello’s not really somewhere where people talk about how they ate a burrito today.
We wanted to raise the bar in terms of the content that was being shared through the design. As we move forward with the product we're still gonna uphold those philosophies and that standard, but it's going to become a little more familiar to the more mainstream social media or Facebook user.
Why is Ello invite only? Why, god, why!?
So we could build the thing slowly, and control growth. When we got started, we built this with zero money. It originally a side project, and because of that, invite only was the way for us to initially invite our friends, artists, designers, in our community, people we admired and respected, and let our friends invite their friends, but at the same time, control explosive growth.
Will it eventually be open to everyone?
Yeah, we think there's going to be a time where it's appropriate. At that point, we'll probably streamline the process a bit and come out of invite only, and I mean, shit, there's already so many people on there that in some ways invite only still seems crazy. I do think that it's acting as a good filter to ensure that there's more and more high quality content on there.
Do you think that if Facebook hadn't come out with puritanical privacy requirements and Big Brother ad manipulation schemes, Ello would still exist?
We're not doing this to take down Facebook. If you think Facebook's cool, and you don't care about the super fucked up data policies and privacy policies, than you should totally hang out there. We're not trying to ... We don't even want people that are aligned with Facebook from a philosophical standpoint to come over to Ello. It's not really for them.
I don't think they love us. We're pretty radically opposed to their business model. I think if you're a believer and you drank the Facebook Kool-aid, and you think it's the next best thing since sliced bread then, yeah, you're probably in opposition to what Ello stands for.
I mean, did you know that if you take Facebook's whole staff, there's more people on staff watching you, than there are people building and maintaining Facebook.?
Now you're interviewing me (laughs). So, clearly you’re against being tracked, but is there anyway that you track any users, or are you completely oblivious to what they do? Because you do have a part on your website that says you don't tolerate trolling or harassment, so aren't you watching in some sense?
Yeah, yeah. So, it's interesting. We're not looking at demographics or monitoring anyone. We have general usage statistics on how many people signed up today, how many total users are on the network, how many total posts are there, how many comments are there. We're starting to look at how much content is video versus written versus an image post. So, we have stuff like that, but we're not functioning in the highly data driven company. We do have Google Analytics installed so that we can look at how our features are performing, but the first thing we tell people to do when they create an account is that if you don't want to give us any data, to look at how our features are being used, go turn it off.
So, people have an option of being observed.
Yeah, they can contribute to giving us data as a company. I can be totally honest, and people might say otherwise, but we do need to know how some of our shit is working to have any hopes of making it a successful company.
There are no ads on Ello, and it sounds like there never will be. Tell us about that.
From it's inception, the product was definitely geared towards people who make things and need cool places to share them. The question we wanted to answer was how do you create an environment for people to share the things that they love the most, and for other people to come and engage with that in a pure, clean, honest and authentic manner?
You can't do that if there's advertising. Advertising fucks up the whole dynamic. Have you ever been to an art gallery where there's advertisements next to the art? I mean, if you take the Facebook experience, if any real artist is showing their art in there, and then there's a column to the right of it, that's going to give you ads for whatever the fuck you've been looking at on the internet over the course of the day, that's bullshit. It ruins the whole experience.
It blows my mind that even more people aren't super pissed about that, but more and more, they are. It's actually pretty fucked up that these big companies, are building these dossiers on you, and they're collecting all that information, and then they don't even tell you what they have, and then they sell all that information. Those are things that we never want to do, and at the same time, we want to protect the sanctity of an individual's content so that they can show it to their peers, and whomever to create opportunities for everyone.
Without ads, how do you sustain yourselves?
We're a public benefit company, so we receive investment revenue What that means is that the way we structured the corporation is that we can put profitability and our commitment to society on the same level so they’re equivalent, and get our investors to agree to that. So, it enables us to do things that a normal company cannot, because we're not legally bound to just generate maximum revenue for our shareholders. When you're a public benefit corporation, you can legally have a commitment to society, and that commitment to society is to change their business model on the internet, stealing and harvesting and selling user's data to doing something different and just getting people to pay for things.
Do you guys have a price tag? What would you accept for ad placement if not money? What if Facebook changed their privacy policies for you?
It's funny. When our investors ask us, "What's the exit strategy?", and that's pretty standard question for an investment group, we said, "We don't really have a fucking exit strategy, because we're trying to make a really kick ass product. If we make a really kick ass product, and we change the paradigm of how people run business on the internet from collecting data and selling ads to paying for services, then, at that time we'll figure out what to do next." We've built a company based on these principles, that we're not going to sell ourselves out, and we're not going to sell our users out.
This seems so humanitarian, and like it all comes from such a good place. That’s a weird thing to see in the tech sector, especially today. Are you really that good of people?
We've always done all of these socially focused things in Boulder to contribute to the community. I think that humanitarian bigger picture viewpoint developed here in Boulder.
We're all different as founders, individuals. I can tell you if you look into my career, my partner's career we've made decisions like this throughout our whole career to do what we believe is the right thing.
That's the shared value system of the company and the founders is that, we think it's important to make things better. We challenge the status quo and we see an opportunity to make something different and something better and I think fewer people do that. This economy is kind of scary and it's pretty hard out there, so to find a way that to make a living challenging the status quo is pretty tricky.
That theme runs through our lives and all of our businesses. I'm not going to say I'm like the pope. We all do our own fucked up things, but in general, I'm pretty confident and proud to say that myself and all of my business partners are pretty forward thinking socioculturally focused people that in general just want to make things better.
Ello seems to be driven towards a realization of authenticity, but today's social media is a place where people can invent new identities for themselves and become people that they wish that they were instead of who they really are. In your opinion, do you think social media should push people to be their true selves or do you think it should facilitate people's fantasies of who they wish that they were?
It's a good question. It's a hard question. I think there's room for both. I know I'm always aspiring to be better, right? It's hard to improve as a human, particularly as you get older, and you get set in your ways. Challenging your own thinking and your own habits becomes very difficult. Speaking for myself, I know I'm always aspiring to do it, and I think most people are, in general, aspiring to be better, and I think one of the ways you do that, sometimes is you sort of fake it til you make it. You play pretend, you know?
I think there's room for people to be, perhaps, a less authentic version of themselves, if they're striving to be better and to realize what that means. At the same time, I think it's great when people are totally genuine and totally honest, and totally who they are. That's how in my interactions on Ello, that's what I try to do. People are going to be people.
Who's your favorite Ello user?
A person in Holland who assumes the persona of a horse. They take photos of this horse, out in this meadow, everyday and they're writing as they're thinking and seeing through the horse's eyes. What the horse is envisioning and it's like someone's total alias, but it's fucking hilarious, and it's super fun. If you want to be a super fucking entertaining weirdo in your free time, I think that's awesome.
Is there anyone that you wish had an Ello account, or that you would love to see on Ello?
Wes Anderson. David Lee Roth is on Ello. And he's like super into it.
What's the future of social media?
More and more people are going to lose faith and trust in mainstream social media, they're going to want to align with someone whose values are more closely inline with theirs. Not just creatively, but on a more significant, social scale.
What does the future look like for Ello?
Eventually, we're going to introduce ways to be able to buy things on Ello, we're going to sell certain services, super cool, really forward, appropriate things for creative people, and let our customers to actually pay us to use our product, rather than sneakily, backhandedly, extracting collecting all their data and then selling it to serve ads.
New features? Do tell.
We're working really hard to get our native app out, and we have a really cool private messaging platform designed that's going to live on top of Ello, that's the final piece of the social component. Right now, it's all public, so letting people message privately and do some really cool things around that. Then, we're going to add the ability for people that have private accounts, there's a lot of people that want those.
There's all sorts of features and bells and whistles for creative people. Most of them are around improved communication, and then there's potentially some marketplace elements to factor in down the road. I can't say too much about them at this stage, but they will be customizable to the user.
If you look at Facebook, it's sort of a standard that everyone sets for a social network. Facebook is totally different than Ello, because everyone gets all the same features. Then you have to go into your settings and turn shit on or turn shit off.
But, you and I don't necessarily want identical things out of a social network. We probably want like 70% of the same shit, and maybe 20 to 30% of it is a little different based on how we're going to use it. So, rather than try to jam all these things in, which forces you to make, what I would believe is a pretty shitty product, aesthetically, at least, we're going to let people buy little things here and there, turn them on or off based on how they use the product. That's the idea around smaller features.
There's some bigger features that are going to help everyone with different fee structures down the road, but that's stuff, honestly it's still probably 2016. We have so much cool designs to do and shit to build before we get there. That's what going to happen when we get there.