Meet Ello, the Social Network Created Right Here in Colorado

Meet Ello, the Social Network Created Right Here in Colorado
ello.co

If you have been anywhere near the Internet in the past week, you've probably heard about Ello, a new social networking site that's still in the Beta stage. But it's picked up a lot of steam as Facebook users started jumping ship after Facebook announced its "real name" policy -- which drag performers and other members and allies of the GLTBQ community charge is dangerous and discriminatory.

Ello's Denver-based programming team is is spearheaded by Paul Budnitz -- the guy behind vinyl toy maker Kidrobot, which moved its headquarters to Boulder in 2010 -- along with Mode Set and fellow Colorado designers Berger & Föhr. We recently chatted with Mode Set's Justin Gitlin (also known around town as music and multimedia artist Cacheflowe) to find out what, exactly, Ello is all about -- and how it's been affected by the recent Facebook move.

See also: CacheFlowe Releases Open-Source Robot Vocal Software to Welcome Our Digital Overlords

Westword: Why start a new social network? I mean, we are in a world dominated by social networks -- especially something like Facebook, which people are clearly still using, though they are having conflicted feelings about it.

Justin Gitlin: Right. I guess you sort of said it -- everybody is using Facebook, but they don't like it. It's because it's there and it's because everybody is on it. There are all sorts of issues people are having with it, and lately it seems like one thing after another. Most recently, it was the (requirement by Facebook) that you have to use your real name, which drove a lot of people away. I'm sure you saw the article about GLBTQ community and sex workers, -- they are big communities -- people who, for safety and personal concerns or for maintaining the persona they identify with, couldn't stay on Facebook.

We started getting e-mails when a couple of community leaders found out about Ello and asked if they could be who they want to be without using their (legal) name. and we said of course. That's not our business, to tell someone who they are. We got a little press, and it sort of took off from there. But I guess to answer the why -- my company, Mode Set, was approached by Paul Budnitz and Berger & Föhr. It was Paul Budnitz's whole crazy idea to begin with, and he had sort of been planning and kind of coming up with the concept with Berger & Föhr, who are the designers up in Boulder.

Paul was the founder of Kidrobot, so he has a pretty wild track record of creating a whole industry that did not exist before -- like the whole designer vinyl toy industry and craze. That didn't exist before he started Kidrobot. He then started a bike company called Budnitz Bicycles and he runs that out of Vermont. They are incredibly nice bikes that I can't afford (laughs.) But they are amazing, well-crafted bikes. That has taken off, too. Paul is one of those guys that I don't think sleeps. He is just go, go, go. He wants to create awesome stuff, and that is the concept that drove this whole thing -- he just wanted to build something awesome. He's super tech-savvy and media-savvy, and I think he, in his wild wisdom, saw a hole to fill.

The big social networks have become increasingly corporate and controlled from the top down and restrictive on what you can do. That, and I think they have become just overly complicated and also flooded with spammers in the form of corporate spam. And they are ugly -- you look at Facebook, and it looks like it could have been made fifteen years ago.

It is ugly. I never thought about how much it looks like, well, old Internet. And with the changes -- it's not like it's getting better for users.

It's just getting more complicated. For many people, the privacy thing is huge -- people are tired of their moms seeing everything they are posting. You have privacy controls for what your mom can see, but maybe there's a place where your mom is not going to be that is actually where you want the post to be, instead of the place you are stuck with.

Totally. Facebook's "privacy" controls can be very vague and overreaching in places you don't even intend them to be.

Oh, I know. And in terms of that whole thing, Twitter has recently done this, too -- they have these really fancy algorithms that decide for you what you want to see. People have had major gripes with that -- I mean, I have, too. And then further on that same topic, they are running experiments on us without telling us. Then it comes out and it seems like people increasingly feel like, how can we trust this system? There are obvious skeptics around what we (Ello) are doing -- they're like, "What's wrong with Facebook"? Or "I don't mind ads."

  But people aren't making the connection between seeing an ad and what is actually happening behind the scenes when they see an ad -- what information is being gathered, data-mined and then sold to companies to sell you more crap. Granted, targeted ads are theoretically better in some ways than non-targeted ads because you might see things that are of your interest. However, all of the tracking and creepy stuff that is going on behind the scenes is pretty offensive to people who care about privacy and don't want to be used in that way. Essentially, these social media sites are using our very personal data to sell shit -- and it's creepy. Whether it is stuff that you want or not, it is a big concern.

All of this led to Ello's sort-of tagline, "Simple, Beautiful and Ad-Free." We're really trying to stick to that and to counter all the complexities and creepy stuff all of these other networks are doing as people are becoming more aware. We're especially talking about privacy right now -- with the influx of the community of folks that sort of blew up the site or was part of the source of that in the last few days, there's a lot of concern about privacy.

We sort of planned for Ello to be pretty public, like Tumblr. We were thinking of it being more of an open thing -- we weren't really thinking about privacy. But when this whole thing came up, people were talking about the importance of privacy, especially in the sex worker community and people who are drag queens and performers and stuff like that.

Yes. Or people who are needing privacy and anonymity for the sake of personal safety. But I can see how initially, maybe Ello was being thought of as a public place for posting about your art or shows or music or whatever. Like a bulletin board of sorts.

Right -- we were thinking, this is for designers and musicians and it's where we can share our work. And now we're realizing that that work might not be something that should be for the eyes of everybody and that should not exclude any positive, creative communities from participating and enjoying it and having a safe place to do that. We shifted our priorities over the last 24 to 48 hours to build in and work on the privacy concept. We're making it so you can have a private account so you are able to opt-in having people follow you and also the concept of blocking.

They are both totally standard concepts that you've seen on other social networks that we weren't thinking about too much, but now it has become important that we serve people that want to be there without making it overly complicated. We didn't want it to be like Facebook where you have lists of people and certain people can see this stuff and that stuff. It's just too much and it goes way against the simple part of our mission. We want everyone to be on Ello and be safe and feel welcome.

That was the main concern I was hearing from the chatter about Ello in the last few days -- the issue of privacy. But then I saw that you guys posted on the site that you were making it a priority. I think that sometimes, you are coming at something from one angle and it isn't until a group or community of people who want to use the site appears and shares what they want from it. It's really cool to see you directly and openly addressing these concerns.

Right. Like over the last couple of days I've been (talking) with Violet Blue, a sex and cyber-crimes journalist. I've been sort of playing PR person coming from the tech angle -- she was calling out some old copy that we had on the site that was more or less placeholder copy in our rules section. It was more or less our terms of service -- it said "no porn." The entire time we've been doing this, we've been thinking, if people want to post whatever it is, we don't care. Tumblr allows it, Twitter now sort of will flag certain media content but they will allow it, just as long as there is a way for people who don't want to see it to not stumble across it.

Where I was going with that was, recently, there has been some pretty touchy and very specific language that you need to use in your terms of service that doesn't leave things open to interpretation to the point of people feeling like they're going to be at risk of getting the boot. Because that's what's happened on other social networks. I now have a lot of Twitter followers in the sex-work industry from interacting with Violet Blue and they have a lot of concerns, which they have every right to. Because if you aren't harming someone else, you have every right to be on a social network -- but this community has been pushed away by almost every other major social network.

I think (our porn policy) came down to, well, is it abusive? There's a lot of interpretation. I think at one point, it (the privacy policy) said "violent." People have very different interpretations of what that means. So it has been really interesting and we absolutely want to be inclusive and not have people scared that we're going to crack down on our lifestyle, because that is not what we're trying to do at all.

It can get pretty murky when we're talking about pornography and context. It's a reason I don't use Tumblr much anymore -- it's a little too Not-Safe-For-Work for my tastes and I end up seeing images I don't want to see. But at the same time, I am okay with consensual pornography existing, and sex workers' rights and art advocacy -- so I can see when you're at the beginning stages of creating a social network, it can be really complicated when you want to be welcoming without censoring but also making everyone comfortable.

Right, and we have to stay within the law. We've had a little bit of a warning from a friend of ours who worked at Twitter and they were telling us about the incredible legal challenges that came up as they were starting their service and as it was really growing. We're very much going to be held legally responsible for what is posted on the site. So it is a crazy, fine balance between protecting people, giving people the freedom to be themselves and not getting slapped with a gigantic lawsuit or attracting negative attention or the NSA or whatever government agencies are interested in theoretically protecting people or whatever it is that they do.   I've been watching this conversation about Ello grow over the last few days and the thing I keep seeing is people comparing its usage to Facebook -- and it's like, it's not Facebook, so why don't you calm down and let it become itself. (Laughs)

I think a little bit if that is that Facebook is sort of the standard. Some of these media reports have been calling us the "Facebook killer" or whatever. But that's not us. That's not what we want. We want to be a different thing -- not everybody who is on Facebook should necessarily be on Ello. I think you'll see some features that are similar have come to expect on Facebook, but a lot of them will probably never be there and we don't want to complicate Ello to the point of becoming a convoluted piece of shit that everybody hates. (Laughs.)

I was initially a resistor of Facebook -- I just preferred MySpace because I felt like it was more geared toward artists. I mean, before it was "revamped" or whatever. That part doesn't exist on Facebook -- Facebook only wants you to be a person -- not a band or an artist. If you have a Facebook page that is an entity and not a person, you don't have the same accessibility or controls you do as a personal profile. I find it to be damning for creative people. Ello seems to be filling this gap to me.

We are artists. Paul is very much an artist and the designers do a lot of fine art beyond their commercial design work. I do my art stuff and I'm a musician and all that. That is absolutely the first sort of bunch of users that came on -- they were friends of ours and friends of our friends. It was sort of the creative community utopia that we wanted to start this thing off as and ideally hold on to. Obviously it sort of exploded and we're not as in control as we were when it was the first 2,000 people we invited. But it is interesting to see where it goes.

My dad is actually a full-time musician, and he plays multiple gigs a week. He's sort of a figure in the smooth jazz scene -- he's an amazing guitarist and writes really beautiful stuff. He's done a really great job -- he's super savvy on Facebook and on the Internet. He's on Ello now. He's on Twitter. He's sort of every place he needs to be as an artist and he got pissed at Facebook because like a year ago when he would post something on Facebook as his artist page, there would be a lot of engagement and a lot of people would see it. Then Facebook changed their policies around promoting and now he has to pay a bunch of money to get that same sort of interaction.

It's one thing if you want to start out that way as a network and say clearly, hey, if you're an artist and you want to promote your stuff, you have to pay for this service. But that's one of the worst parts about Facebook -- it changes things under the radar. For a lot of people I hear the gripe that they are already invested so much in Facebook that they don't want to go anywhere else -- but Facebook isn't, essentially, working for them at all anyway.

They have thousands of people on their page, but the page is sort of useless. You can place some of that blame on Facebook and you can place some of it on all of us for trusting them. But it sucks. As an artist or someone promoting themselves or even someone who just wants to interact with their friends, it's been a moving target. That's one of the many things that has eroded even more trust in Facebook and there are people looking for an alternative that isn't going to screw with them constantly. It's even down to like when Facebook changes the user interface and everyone is bitching.

Some of that happens -- if you want a product to evolve, you're going to piss some people off who don't want to learn the new system. I've been playing customer service and PR person over the last few days, and people are coming on to Ello and are like, "this button is confusing" or whatever. But it is the same situation people run into on Facebook every six months, and you kind of have to re-learn it. That's just technology. Especially when you are moving to an entirely new platform. How often have we all had to re-learn a social network? Not that often.

There's a lot of critique -- especially since we've invited all of these sorts of designers and creative types -- there is a lot of feedback. There's a lot of "this is beautiful, I love it," too. But I think a lot of (the gripes) come from people just being forced to learn something new, which they don't want to do. Which is why people are saying, "well, where is this feature that is on Facebook?" and we're like, it's not Facebook. You have to take a minute to learn this thing, and once you do, hopefully it will be pretty nice.

People are concerned that ads will eventually become part of Ello. How are you addressing that part of the conversation?

Totally. I'm a skeptic -- especially of social networks like this. I can absolutely see where that concern comes from because it seems to happen no matter what. If you look at the big social networks, they all introduced ads at one point. It is seemingly inescapable, but none of those platforms have a model that is anything other than mining your data and selling it to advertisers. That is the current social media model. That is not what we are trying to do.

Our model is the "Freemium" model, which means that we provide a free service, but you can upgrade it for small amounts of money. So we're thinking of a wide array of features that we will offer for small sums of money. You will literally pay Ello to improve. The "Freemium" model is working in the game industry, it is working in a lot of other places and we really hope and believe it is going to work for us. That's sort of where we're going. It just hasn't been tried on this scale.

The example I've been using is this: Maybe for a dollar, you can activate the ability to upload an animated GIF as your avatar. It's super simple and I think a lot of people would totally dig then. But conversely -- and this is totally theoretical -- say a bunch of people have enabled that feature for a dollar and say you hate the animated GIFs that you're seeing in your friend list, you could potentially pay a dollar to hide those animated GIFs. Basically, everybody will have the ability to make it what they want without having it turn into MySpace, where it was too customizable and people could make the site unusable by embedding a bunch of images. Your browser is more or less crashing because it is too customizable. So our plan is definitely to stick to the beautiful and simple and keep it really reigned in but have nice features.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies



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