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Say Ello to an Ad-Free Facebook Substitute Social Network

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Call Ello the little social network that could. Invitation-only, ad-free Ello has exploded in popularity in recent weeks, with early adopters and everyday consumers alike flocking to the network.

And Ello's really not even trying.

Members of the public seem so hungry for a place to interact with friends and share content outside of the prying (i.e., tracking) eyes of advertisers that they'll give the newcomer a shot despite early complaints about the less than user-friendly interface. Ello founder Paul Budnitz told the Boston Globe that over the past month, Ello's enrollment has been doubling every three or four days. In August, it had just 90 members; by late September, Ello was adding over 30,000 users per week. And it's still in private beta.

So, what is Ello and should you give it a try? Let's check it out.

An Ad-Free Facebook Alternative

Early adopters have been griping (in other social networks, of course) about the sometimes clunky Ello interface and difficult navigation. It's true; it's not the most fluid experience, but it's very early days. We tend to expect the same experience across networks that we've come to expect from the granddaddy of social media, Facebook.

Don't forget how long Facebook took to build the experience people enjoy now. New features are being added incrementally to Ello as are new users by invitation only. Right now, Ello looks and acts very much like a stripped-down Facebook, as seen in this photo of the homepage.

But don't compare Ello to Facebook—at least not in front of founder Budnitz.

Ello is not a Facebook competitor, he said. Created by a group of seven artists and programmers, Ello is meant to be free of advertising and is funded by a more invested group of users who don't mind paying for inexpensive optional features.

The founders envision a different type of social networking experience, one where users are free of tracking and the constant barrage of ads that now pollute Facebook. As you would expect, Ello has a much cleaner interface.

If you are invited to join Ello (you can either wait for an invite or apply to get one when it's available), you are asked to sign the Ello manifesto:

Your social network is owned by advertisers.

Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data, so they can show you more ads. You are the products bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. 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.

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.

You are not a product.

If that doesn't sound good to you, Ello will direct you back to Facebook with the click of the "I disagree" button.

Others have tried over the years to create ad-free social networks, but without sufficient public outrage at the ads, those companies were unable to sell people on enough features to survive. Ello might have come along at just the right time, as users grow ever more weary of the constant tracking and targeting.

What Can You Do With Ello?

Ello has quite a few Facebook-like features. You can connect with Friends; share media, text, links, and images; and control a few basic privacy settings.

It has some unique features, as well. For instance, you can sort your connections into either Friends or Noise categories, depending on how much of their content you want to see in your feed. It's as easy as dragging and dropping their profile image into the category:

Each user has a profile, complete with a feed of his or her posted content, a small profile picture and About section, and a massive header image visible only on scrolling.

The Friends list displays in the left sidebar, whether you're on a profile page or the homepage. Each user is represented only by his or her circular profile image, though the username pops up on hover-over. Just above the Friends list and the Friends/Noise categories, you'll see a small, light grey menu:

The person icon is for the Discover page, which is basically Ello's search engine. The plus sign inside the circle icon is the Invite option and allows you to generate a limited number of Invite codes for your contacts. The cog icon, as you might expect, takes you to your settings.

The icon on the far right, three horizontal lines, collapses and expands the Friends list sidebar, and the Ello logo on the left takes you to the homepage (your newsfeed).

What Are Ello's Plans?

As part of Ello's commitment to transparency, the company has made available a list of upcoming features and is checking them off as they're released. Already released to date are simple commenting, @mention prepopulation on user profiles, and improved error handling.

When another user makes a post, you can already see the timestamp, comments, and how many people have viewed the post:

Users can post plain text or advanced text (with bold, italics, and URLs) as well as images, emojis, and even GIFs.

The list of upcoming features is long and gives you an idea of what Ello might look and feel like in the months to come:

• User blocking

• Inappropriate content flagging

• Audio integration with SoundCloud

• Private accounts

• Multimedia commenting

• Mobile Web refinements

• Reposting with author attribution

• Notification Center

• Online and offline user designations

• Love + Love bookmarking stream

• Emoji index

• Video integration with YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram, and Vine

• @@ private messaging

• Auto-push posts to other networks

• iOS and Android mobile apps

Will Ello Always Be Free?

Nope. Ello is clear that its plan is to offer a freemium social network. Ello's team is adamant Ello will never use advertising on its site, but the company does need to generate revenue. To that end, the founders say:

Ello is completely free to use.

Very soon, we will begin offering special features to our users. If we create a special feature that you like, you can choose to pay a very small amount of money to add it to your Ello account forever. We believe that everyone is unique and that we all want and need different things from a social network. So, we are going to offer all sorts of ways for users to customize their Ello experience.

The vast majority of Ello's features, the ones that all of us use every day, are always going to be free, and we'll keep improving them. When you choose to pay a small amount of money for a new feature, you help support Ello as an ad-free network and help us make it better and better.

Will Ello cause a mass exodus from Facebook, as some predict? Probably not. However, it is an interesting concept, and the interest to date really speaks to the desire of the general public to have a place to network outside of the trackable networks.

It's far too early to compare Ello to the "big guys," but it is interesting to note that Google+ never really took off as a viral craze and now, its features and integrations are being slowly phased out. Maybe Google+ was a little too much like Facebook, or maybe people really just don't want to be advertised to all the time, everywhere they go.

Whether Ello takes off and succeeds as an ad-free social network (i.e., a true alternative to Facebook) will give us a better idea of the tolerance of the online public to social advertising. We'll also see just how willing people are to pay for social networking features.

If you haven't received an invitation to join Ello and want to try it out, sign up to the list here.

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Larry Kim is the founder/CTO of WordStream Inc., provider of the AdWords Grader and 20 Minute PPC Work Week.

Google+: Larry Kim

Twitter: @larrykim

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