Can a Social Network Stay Ad-Free?

Ello is going to give it a try.


In a prominent sidebar on its site, the social network Ello describes itself as “Simple, beautiful & ad-free.” If you visit the Ello page of Sonos, a speaker company, you’ll still see that message, right next to this one: “Sonos speakers bring all the music on earth to every room in your home, wirelessly: www.sonos.com.”

Yes, as Ben Breier notes at Medium, the ad-free social network already has an advertiser — though not of the paid variety, as Sonos appears to have created an ordinary user page. Mr. Breier does not approve of the move. His message to Sonos: “Maybe there was something about an ‘ad-free social network’ that tripped you up, but trust me: right now, this is not the place for you.” He explains:

“Sometimes rebelling is good. Sometimes rebelling can gain you traction. This is not one of those times. Sonos is acting out of turn, and their presence on Ello is like the digital equivalent of double-parking. It’s not illegal, but the other cars you’re sharing a space with know you aren’t supposed to be there.”

Ello isn’t just ad-free. As evinced by that sidebar, it’s proudly ad-free. The site also includes a manifesto that includes a stinging critique of other social media sites:

“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 product that’s bought and sold.”

As Taylor Hatmaker notes at The Daily Dot, Ello is getting attention now at least in part because of opposition to Facebook’s requirement that users operate under their legal names. Valeriya Safronova of The New York Times reports that Facebook has suspended two drag performers’ accounts for violation of this policy, inspiring protests. Ello, on the other hand, has no plans to require legal names.

“When a social network has advertising,” Paul Budnitz, one of Ello’s founders, told Op-Talk, “it’s really the advertiser who’s the customer. And then the product that’s being bought and sold is the user, the user’s data. And the more they know about you, the more valuable that is.”

“Ello is different,” he added. “Because we don’t have ads, it actually changes in a really fundamental way everything we do. We don’t actually care who you are.”

At this point, Ello’s adlessness seems woven into every aspect of its existence, including its attitude to privacy. But Mr. Budnitz says the company has no plans to boot out brands: “It’s totally okay for companies to join Ello, and they can put anything they want up on their pages. If they want to, they can fill them with ads.”

But Ello won’t make money from those ads, he said, and it won’t sell user data or let brands pay to increase the audience for their posts.

He noted that his bicycle company has a page on Ello (Mr. Breier also points this out in an update to his Medium post). “I expect many other brands to join,” he said. “If people don’t want to follow them, they don’t have to. You can have a totally ad-free Ello experience if that’s what you want, and I suppose you can go follow a bunch of companies if you wanted, too.”

In a post on Ello itself, the blogger Andy Baio wonders whether Ello’s ad-free stance can last. He notes that the network’s creators “took a $435,000 round of seed funding in January from FreshTracks Capital, a Vermont-based VC firm that announced the deal in March.” And, he writes, “Unless they have a very unique relationship with their investors, Ello will inevitably be pushed towards profitability and an exit, even if it compromises their current values.” He concludes:

“I hope Ello can stick to their philosophy, resist outside pressure, fight market forces, and find a unique and sustainable niche.

“Let’s hope their investors feel the same way.”

Mr. Budnitz counters that he and his co-founders “own an enormous majority of the stock in this company. The investors are very minority.”

And he added: “Our investors are great people. They’re totally down with the vision. We’ve put a very, very firm stake in the ground about ads, and that is what we’re doing.”

Now that brands are cute on Twitter and adbots are on Kik, it’s hard to imagine a social network without people trying to sell stuff on it. Ello will, apparently, be no exception. For Mr. Budnitz, the distinction seems to be that brands will be allowed, but not catered to. And he sees Ello as qualitatively different from the social networks that have preceded it.

“We’re really not here to compete,” he said. “I would compare Ello to Ello.”


This article is part of Op-Talk, from NYT Opinion.


Top image credit: Arno, via creative commons