Upstart Challenges Facebook On User Privacy Ello is a new social network — one that requires an invite to join. But Facebook dominates the market with a billion users, and it's tough for competitors to survive. So what does it take to make it?

Upstart Challenges Facebook On User Privacy

Upstart Challenges Facebook On User Privacy

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Ello is a new social network — one that requires an invite to join. But Facebook dominates the market with a billion users, and it's tough for competitors to survive. So what does it take to make it?


A new social network is getting a lot of attention. It's called Ello, like the word hello pronounced by Eliza Doolittle. A big part of its appeal is that it's not Facebook. The site promises not to sell information about you or to bombard you with ads. If you go to the site, it looks like the Internet made with a typewriter and some Polaroids, just text and pictures.

The CEO of Ello, Paul Budnitz, told NPR the company is getting 40,000 sign-ups and requests per hour. We wondered whether anyone really can dethrone Facebook or even compete as an alternative.

We've called Howard Rheingold. He teaches virtual communities and social media at Stanford. He also coined the term virtual community. He's basically a Jedi master in this world. I asked him whether there is an appetite for social networks that won't sell your personal data or track your movements.

HOWARD RHEINGOLD: We're noticing things, of course, you know, when you use Gmail, it's sometimes unnerving how relevant the ads are in the margin. And you might shop for something somewhere and decide not to buy it and then see an ad for it on Facebook.

So I think that there's a growing awareness of the degree to which people are being tracked. So yes, there is a great appeal to something that promises not to sell your data and bombard you with ads.

I wonder, though, about after a lot of people join it whether they're going to continue to participate. Because I know that there was something called Path. I don't know how many years ago, two, three, four, five years ago, that offered an alternative to Facebook. And I joined like a lot of other people. And like a lot of other people, I don't use it anymore.

SHAPIRO: Have you joined Ello yet?

RHEINGOLD: I have not joined Ello. I got an invite and I decided that I've got enough happening online.

SHAPIRO: I made the exact same decision. I got an invite this week and I ignored it.

RHEINGOLD: It's pretty noisy out there.

SHAPIRO: And how much of a risk is that for anyone who tries to enter this already saturated online space?

RHEINGOLD: You've got to do something to rise above the noise. And I think Ello has done what any social application that wants to succeed does, which is they seed it with people that they believe are going to influence others.

SHAPIRO: And that's why it's membership by invitation-only, at least for now.

RHEINGOLD: Instagram started by invitation only. There's something that chaos scientists called sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The first folks who start using it and the people they tell are sort of the DNA of a social network.

Remember, Facebook started at Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. So they had the cache of the elite colleges. And of course, students from other colleges wanted to join.

SHAPIRO: You know, I actually remember a conversation from long ago when Friendster was dying. And I asked somebody, I need to create a profile on MySpace or Facebook but I don't know which one. What should I do?

And he said, Facebook is for college graduates. MySpace is for other people. And if that's true, then who are the Ello people?

RHEINGOLD: That's a very good question. I don't know that they're the super elite, the superrich. There was a social network for the superrich that was started years ago called ASMALLWORLD. Of course, ASMALLWORLD is for the one percent. Maybe the one-tenth of one percent have one that nobody but them ever hears about.

SHAPIRO: Howard Rheingold, a member of the 99 percent and author of many books about social media media and virtual communities. Thanks so much for your time.

RHEINGOLD: My pleasure.

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