Ello: Ad free ≠ tracking free.

Ello is everywhere these days: It has a manifesto! It doesn’t look corporate! It’s ad free! But is it what you think it is?

Ello takes the stance that people don’t like to be products — their behaviours sold to the highest bidder. That’s is how, until recently, people saw social networks. Retargeting ads are seen as creepy and the idea that social media sites have so much information on you is unsettling to some. Enter ello.co, a very indie-feeling social network that purports to be free from ads. It struck a nerve and using an in-group invite system and has generated 31,000 “join requests” per hour recently.

The 5 paragraph Ello manifesto has the following lines:

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.

And it goes on to say:

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency.

Many users may read the manifesto and thing “Great! Facebook without being spied on!” It’s not that simple. You are still giving up information and that information is being shared.

Let me say that I’m not some sort of web privacy crusader — I build websites that use Google Analytics and retargeting advertising. I think most users understand that there is an exchange of data that supports websites, makes them better and it drives the modern economy to some degree.

I see people going over to Ello believing that they are aren’t being tracked. That just isn’t the case. Ello uses Google Analytics — users should know this. Below is a screenshot from the Google-provided Tag Assistant plugin activated on Ello.co while logged in. This plugin used by web devs to debug issues with implementing Google Analytics. In short, it shows the status of google analytics on any site you visit:

Google Analytics is a great tool and I understand why the Ello team is using it, however it seems quite contrary to that line in the manifesto: Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Google Analytics and the data retained by Ello themselves do just that — they are tracking everything and converting it to data. It’s also being shared with Google.

For those who don’t know, Google Analytics stores great amounts of data about you, your technology, and your behaviour. It stores where you are logged in from (down to the city level), what ISP you use, what browser and version, and your language. It reports how you got to a site (via a link, direct, or social network) and how you move from page to page in the site. It also tracks any links you click. Ello also uses an extension of Google Analytics to uniquely identify users with a userId so they can be tracked across browser sessions and devices:

Just thinking about how a social network like Ello is put together, you can see how the people at Ello use their database to determine your relationships, likes, dislikes, and all sorts of other things about you too.

Time will tell.

Much has been made about how Ello has accepted venture capital funds — making many people wary of it’s manifesto. I, for one, am very curious to see how it turns out over time. I hope they make waves and change the climate of social media. Heck, users even have the ability to turn ‘off’ Google Analytics, which is great, but it is defaulted to ‘on’ (‘on’ defaults have been a long time problem for facebook) and buried on the settings page. That being said, I don’t think this type of options are even on the table for anyone else, so it’s a step.

My only real beef with what Ello is doing is that they are leading users to believe that they are radically different than the other guys. I don’t see much difference really — they are still storing and sharing large amounts of information by default. They know about you and they’ve accepted a wad of VC money in the idea that they will likely be gobbled up by a bigger player. This bigger player will likely not have the same enlightenment and they have to know this.

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