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Is a social network that doesn’t share user data possible? We asked someone who’s trying.

Remember Ello? Once deemed a “Facebook killer,” it’s plugging away on a smaller scale.

A screenshot of Ello, from 2014.
A screenshot of Ello from 2014.
AFP/Getty Images

With Facebook mired in a controversy over the misuse of the data of 50 million of its users by the company Cambridge Analytica, people have started thinking about alternatives to the social media giant. Sure, you can delete Facebook (though as Vox’s Aja Romano reports, it’s really hard), but what many people seem to hunger for is a social platform that would provide a lot of the benefits of Mark Zuckerberg’s invention without the skeevy siphoning up of personal data.

The social media site Mastodon, which bears a passing resemblance to Twitter, reports a surge in interest following the Facebook news. (It has a paltry 1.1 million users, compared to Facebook’s 2 billion-plus.)

But it can be tough to live up to the reputation of being a “better” Facebook — just ask Todd Berger, the CEO of Ello, a social networking site for artists, designers, and other “creatives.” In 2014, after a journalist anointed Ello a “Facebook killer,” the site started to blow up. It helped that Facebook had started to more aggressively enforce a mandatory-real-name policy, which alarmed LGBTQ users and others.

An Ello “manifesto” said the site offered a “better way” than that offered by existing social networks, on which

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.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

The publicity soured when it became clear the company could not remotely serve as a Facebook substitute. Trying to puff up Ello into a Facebook rival “seemed like a horrible idea and proved to be one,” Berger now says. It created a rift in the company.

Today, with some 3 million members, down from 4.5 million at peak hype, Ello is focused on its core membership. It has a staff of a dozen in Boulder, Colorado, and grew by 300,000 to 400,000 members last year. In a conversation edited for clarity and conciseness, Berger reflected on the trade-off between scale and privacy.

Christopher Shea

You’re trying to put the “Facebook killer” stuff behind you. But it’s true that Ello was trying to create an alternative to Facebook, at least for this smaller group of people — artists, designers, and other “creatives” — right?

Todd Berger

Yeah, but it was never about turning into Facebook because those people never believed in Facebook in the first place — for all the reasons that the mainstream populace is catching on to now.

I’m 42. I’ve been working on the internet my whole career, since the mid-’90s. It was pretty obvious when these big networks started popping up that they were going to be collecting and harvesting data to generate revenue. I mean, anyone who wasn’t getting that wasn’t paying attention. So it’s baffling to me that everyone is saying, “Oh, this is a debacle. Oh, my god, how could this happen?” Facebook’s terms of use and privacy policy has always said what they do with the data. They never lied

This seems to be a case of misuse of data [by Cambridge Analytica]. In some ways, I feel bad for Facebook … sure, it’s sad that it happened, but Facebook is a high-risk company. There are, what, 2.3 billion people on it, with tons of data? It’s a hard thing to handle.

Christopher Shea

You’re not on Facebook yourself. Why is that?

Todd Berger

I’ve never been on. I thought from day one that it was a data play. How else are they going to grow? I’ve seen the models evolve since the ’90s. The only way you can scale social to the size of Facebook is to collect personal data — that’s the business. And honestly, I’m just generationally — I’ve never been interested.

I get it that [these large social platforms] have made lots of people wealthy. It’s enabled young kids to build these careers in YouTube by developing these massive followings, and that’s great as long as you understand the risk.

Christopher Shea

So if people want their data to be secure, do they have to turn their backs on the big free social platforms and go to niche places like Ello?

Todd Berger

Yes, I believe this is the future. Destinations like Ello, Arena, VFILES, and other niche communities are doing a great job of providing alternatives to the mainstream.

Christopher Shea

Would it be possible to create an Ello at scale, or does the idea of a massive social network by definition lead to the problems Facebook is experiencing?

Todd Berger

If by “at scale” you mean at Facebook scale, no. But I do believe Ello and other similar products have massive room for growth and can scale vastly in their own rights.

Christopher Shea

It sounds like when people heard the words “Facebook killer,” they wanted it all: They wanted everything good from Facebook, free — minus losing control of their data.

Todd Berger

Totally.

Christopher Shea

It sounds like this is not possible with current technology.

Todd Berger

No, it hasn’t proven possible. Sure, with subscription services it can be done, maybe. But we need a major cultural shift because the problem is the expectation that all of these public social services are free — and they are free.

But free comes at a cost, and to my knowledge, most of the companies that have been very successful, they don’t lie about what that cost is. It’s clearly outlined in their terms of service and privacy policies. But no one bothers to read that shit, because once your friends join, you join and start sharing stuff, and that’s great. But realize that the fun comes at a cost.

But in the mid- to long term, our hope is that emerging technology — blockchain technology — is going to change some of this. Right now when you publish in the ecosystem of the internet, if you are a highly sought-after artist, you don’t make any money for that content you share. Say you get a million views and [extensive] engagement — there’s nothing in that for you other than visibility, right?

So while that engagement is of immense value to Instagram, they don’t see that it’s in their interest to reward the creator for their content. But once that content is on a blockchain and there’s a ledger of who created this, the usage of that content is tracked, and the creator is rewarded for it. I think we need to move to a model where people control their data, and they sell it or don’t sell it according to their own free will.

Christopher Shea

Till that kind of ledger system is technologically possible, would it be a good thing if we all got used to paying 100 bucks a year for a social network?

Todd Berger

I think it would be a great thing, and I think we would take back some of our rights around personal privacy.

Christopher Shea

How do people make money on Ello? Is the idea that people go on Ello to find cool stuff made by your members and buy it?

Todd Berger

Yes, people can buy work. We also partner with brands and agencies to launch products. Creatives need visibility, and they need to grow their influence. Those two things, visibility and influence, lead to opportunities. When we share your work with one of our partners who feature it, and some art director at Nike sees it, that could lead to someone getting hired by Nike.

We’re trying to elevate creatives and promote them in a way that helps them first, then build a business model second. We’re certainly imperfect at it, but we are doing a better job of it from a principles and values standpoint.

Christopher Shea

The Ello manifesto struck a chord. Was it ahead of its time?

Todd Berger

It gets presented as being ahead of the curve, but I didn’t even find it very inventive at the time. We were just trying to state what some of our core principles were. Creatives tend to be one of the vanguards on the internet, so they tend to be aware of how their data and content are being used, which is why we thought this would resonate with the people we were interested in.

I don’t think Facebook ever had cruel intentions. They are executing a business model that clearly states what they’re going to do with people’s data.

But people have decided the internet deserves to be free, that all these private companies, including Facebook, should give people free services. So people are totally complicit in this transference of data.