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31,000 people an hour are joining the social network Ello. The anti-Facebook, explained.

Man using Ello.
Man using Ello.
Shutterstock

A brand-new social networking startup — Ello — has gone viral. At one point on Thursday, the site was acquiring 31,000 new users an hour — many of whom flocked to there because of a disagreement with Facebook over its policy requiring real names, which some say is unfair to LGBTQ and transgender users.

Ello might be the new Facebook or the new Twitter or the new social media flop. It's too early to tell. Here is everything you need to know to understand Ello and why it's popular right now:

1) What is Ello?

Ello is an ad-free, invite-only, independent social network that is still in its beta testing mode. On the site, users can post statuses, change profile pictures, add friends, and follow people. Users can also label their contacts "Friends" or "Noise" and sort out what they want to see accordingly. Here's what a profile on Ello looks like:

ello screenshot

Paul Budnitz, an artist and toy maker, is the most vocal of Ello's seven founders and has served as the mouthpiece for the company. "My partners and I had lost interest and were fed up with other social networks — exhausted by ads, clutter, and feeling manipulated and deceived by companies that clearly don't have our interests at heart," Budnitz told BetaBeat in April 2014.

Ello is supposed to be a response to that mentality. It's a social network with a manifesto — the anti-Facebook:

ello manifesto

Ello's manifesto (ello.co)

2) When did Ello become a thing?

The new version of Ello, the one users see now, launched in April 2014. Before that, Budnitz told BetaBeat, Ello was used for about a year by a small group of 100 of Budnitz's friends who are artists and designers. The site began giving invitations to people outside of Budnitz's friend group in May of 2014, but it didn't go viral until recently.

"We're not Facebook. Our mission was never to grow fast," Budnitz told BetaBeat. "Our mission here is to make a great social network. We don't want to be bombarded with so many people that the network is no good." But what Budnitz wants doesn't really matter.

The site went viral after the Daily Dot published an article titled "The great gay Facebook exodus begins." Almost immediately, new members were flocking to the site at a rate of 4,000 new users an hour. The unexpected uptick caused founders to worry that Ello might collapse, but Budnitz told BetaBeat that their tech team worked overdrive to keep the site up. By the evening of September 25, 31,000 people were joining Ello every hour.

3) Why are people flocking to it now?

People genuinely dislike Facebook for a lot of reasons. Facebook has ads, can be noisy, and sells your information. Facebook is always trying to get you to play games and be friends with people you don't like. Some people hate Facebook because they hate themselves. For these reasons, an ad-free social network that doesn't sell your information and allows you to mute your friends is a welcome alternative.

But the main reason that people are leaving Facebook in droves for Ello is Facebook's naming policy, which states that people must use their real names to be a user. Facebook says this is a way to keep people safe, but the policy has had real repercussions for the LGBTQ community.

4) What's wrong with the naming policy?

Using a "real name" on Facebook does not suit every user's needs. Many users don't identify by their birth name, but this is particularly problematic for people who do not identify as their birth gender. This is not to say that Facebook is necessarily transphobic or homophobic. In February they changed their pronoun policy to allow users to choose.

But Facebook took a huge step backward when they started shutting down user profiles of drag queens and transgender people because they were not complying with the naming policy. An example is Sister Roma, a famous San Francisco drag queen who was forced to change her personal profile back to her birth name, which few people even knew:

Additionally, many LGBTQ people change their names on Facebook to protect themselves from harassment. For these people, Ello offers the opportunity to go back to what they consider their real name, even if it's not their birth name. "Yes, we've been hearing about the Facebook drama too over the last few days," Paul Budnitz told the Daily Dot. "Ello welcomes the LGBTQ community and we're very excited to see so many people moving over!"

5) Why is Ello a more appealing social network than, say Twitter?

Ello is new, and in some ways that's appealing in and of itself, but it is also appealing to groups of people who experience a lot of online harassment. Ello has a zero tolerance hate policy. Twitter and Facebook can't say the same. On Twitter, for example, you can report people for harassment, but unless they have threatened you personally and directly, it's unlikely that user will be removed.

This is particularly important for women and LGBTQ people, who experience an extreme amount of harassment on the internet. The internet is not safe for many, but maybe on Ello it could be .

6) Is this what that Rihanna song is about?

I think you're talking about "Umbrella" and no. Not even close.  She's saying "ella, ella, ella" not "ello." This is different.

7) Is any of this true? Is Ello more moral than Facebook?

Probably not. As Nitasha Tiku reported for Gawker, Ello has taken venture capital financing to the tune of $435,000. The Vermont firm that financed them announced the deal in March, right before Ello relaunched. VCs, unlike Kickstarter campaigns and angel investors, don't just give money away. They dole out money with the expectation that there will be a monetary return on it, which means that even though Ello is currently ad-free, they are also tied to a venture capital firm that expects to make a profit on their investment.

Ello says it's planning to make money by offering users premium features to those who pay for them. This business model could generate enough revenue to preserve the site's ad-free ethos. But there's no guarantee the site won't change its mind and begin selling ads once it has a broad user base.

Facebook was a "product-first" company for years before it morphed into the advertising giant that it is today. There's no telling whether or not the same would not happen to Ello were it to take off.

8) Will Ello ruin Facebook?

That's unlikely. There have been several startups that have tried to reimagine the social network. Remember Diaspora? Remember App.net? Remember Path? Of course you don't. Because despite the publicity and excitement that surrounded those new creations, they just didn't take off. All of these apps were trying to create cleaner, more beautiful escapes from Facebook. None of them succeeded.

9) Should I join Ello?

You are your own person with your own special social media needs. There's no way to accurately predict right now whether or not Ello will succeed, but it seems unlikely that the ad-free, hate-free social network will surpass Facebook. It also seems unlikely that Ello will be able to stay ad-free and hate-free forever. But it is for now, and that's something.

Update: The section on venture capital investments has been updated to reflect the lack of information known about Ello's specific contract with their venture capital firm.

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