THAT WAS FAST. Upstart social network Ello felt the wrath of the internet almost immediately.
For days, tweets and status updates mocked the site's strangely Cockney name, its hipster origins (creator Paul Budnitz helped found both the designer toy and art company Kidrobot and a shop that makes high-end custom-built bikes), and its sheer chutzpah. Here, after all, is a site that has a manifesto that closes with the simple phrase, "You are not a product."
In tandem with the sarcasm, though, has been some genuine interest in what Ello might have to offer. Many users were already looking for an excuse to vacate Facebook after it instituted a since-reversed policy of suspending the accounts of people who don't use their legal name, a move that excluded drag performers and other folks wishing to remain below the radar for fear of harassment. Ello has no such requirement.
Others, like Boston Globe culture writer Michael Andor Brodeur, are, as he wrote in a column last month, more than happy to get away from Facebook and "the bubble-enforcing dictates of its algorithms" and "its glut of ads and useless content."
"Something I didn't pick up on until recently is the amount of clicking you have to do on Facebook," Brodeur told me last week. "You have to click to see this and click to get back over here. And with every page that loads, new ads get loaded. Ello is clean and smooth and you can use your arrow keys to navigate. It's almost off-putting to people who are used to the runaround."
Yet, for the supposedly exponential rate at which Ello's user base is growing (upward of 50,000 requests an hour, according to Budnitz), the loudest voices seem to be the ones questioning its sustainability, who feel that the site's chest-beating chatter is, as comedian Andy MacDonald put it to me on Facebook, "a passionately written manifesto that doesn't really mean anything."
The first red flag was hoisted up about two weeks ago by XOXO Festival co-founder Andy Baio via a post to his Ello page. The tech writer/entrepreneur revealed that the site took in $435,000 in funding from FreshTracks Capital, a venture capital firm in Vermont. This is the standard route for a startup to take, but, according to Baio (who is refusing all interviews on the subject), it also puts Budnitz's lofty goals at risk.
"Ello will inevitably be pushed toward profitability," he wrote, "even if it compromises their current values."
Everyone involved with the site balks at these concerns, insisting that there is no plan to start selling shares of the company via an IPO, or any hope of being snapped up by a larger entity like Google or Microsoft. Instead, they plan on staying afloat by offering à la carte features like new layouts or multi-user access that could be added to your Ello account for a nominal fee. It's the kind of premium account model that works for other entities like Slate or WordPress, but for some, like Matthew Haughey, creator of community weblog MetaFilter, it still doesn't add up.
"Even with 10 million users giving you $2 a month, that alone wouldn't help keep the servers going on that scale," Haughey says. "I mean, they've likely already burned through initial seed funding on salaries alone. My guess is that they probably launched early to try and raise another round of funds."
That, right now, seems to be the biggest complaint that average users have about Ello: It showed up online well before it was ready. The current beta site has bugs aplenty: a wonky search function, disappearing posts, and occasional issues like the one I ran into recently, where clicking on a link in someone's profile made the entire page disappear.
To keep users enticed, the site posts a continually updated list of features that they'll be rolling out in the months to come, such as the ability to "love" a post (which will also save it to a list for future access), private messaging, and better privacy controls.
For a number of users, the promise of a better site isn't enough to keep them coming back regularly. A lot of the followers on my feed haven't posted in a over a week since first signing up; most of whom told me they are taking a "wait and see" stance, holding off on using their accounts until all the kinks have been worked out.
Complaints about Ello potentially dragging their feet on getting the site completely up to speed bear some truth, especially as the developers have had to shift priorities to provide the ability to block and mute accounts (especially those of brands like Netflix, who have already opened accounts) with the influx of new users. Looked at from another perspective, the extra time it's taking the programmers to solve these problems is further proof that the people behind Ello are committed to building a quality site from the ground up.
"The fact that there's a small group working on this and we've seen how clambering this rollout has been is exciting to see," says Brodeur. "I'm sure there are plenty of people who would throw a fuckload of money at them to get those missing features up immediately. But they're resolved to being this mom-and-pop-style operation, which is reassuring. Frustrating and reassuring."