Paul Budnitz’s buzzy invite-only social network Ello is a hot ticket in Silicon Valley right now. But Budnitz is not your typical tech entrepreneur, having last run a bicycle shop in Burlington, Vermont, far from the shadow of the California tech scene. Ello, a still-in-beta experiment that has attracted $5.5 million in venture backing, is his side project. And it’s unlikely to have a measurable impact on existing social networks anytime soon.
But Budnitz’s position as an outsider technologist and cultural tastemaker gives him the power to transform the way we think about the Internet’s neighborhoods.
“In Ello we’re certainly not trying to be for everyone in the entire world,” Budnitz tells me recently. “I think Facebook once said that they want to sign up everyone on Earth. You know? We’re not doing that.”
Ello is not the anti-Facebook–although that’s what many people think. Budnitz considers Facebook an advertising platform, while his space is a true social network. You can find out what exactly that means by reading the manifest on the Ello homepage, at the bottom of which there are two buttons. “One says ‘I Agree’ and the other says ‘I Disagree,’” Budnitz says. “If you agree then you can request an invite to Ello, and if you disagree, we just send you to Facebook.”
Indeed, Budnitz has promised that Ello will not accept advertising, ever, and took the extra step of turning the company into a public benefit corporation on Thursday.
There’s something about Budnitz’s voice–a hushed didacticism packed with the charisma of a cult leader–that is reminiscent of the asymmetric knowledge transfer that happens at an indie book or record store between workers and patrons. Only Budnitz’s style is more inclusionary, as he ends most sentences with an upward inflection (“you know?”). He chooses his words carefully, but not in the way a marketing or sales person might. No, his work is clearly based on a philosophy and his cadence and description are there to make sure he’s accurate for the cause.
It’s about this point in our conversation that I blurt out: “Did you go to art school?”
“I did, I studied art at Yale,” he says. “Photography, sculpture, and I shot some movies in the ’90s.” This explains something about Ello that many people who are caught up in the VC-funding-to-exit strategy cycle of tech-sploitation don’t immediately understand: It’s as much an art project as a social network.
“People think, ‘oh, you know you make something that’s a little more artistic or beautiful it’s not going to reach very many people,” he says. “But you know my experience has been that if people are given an alternative, they’ll choose something beautiful if they can, you know?”
A lot of Ello users are using it as a standard social network, and they’re using real names and posting about their lives. Others are using it in an entirely different way. Greg Foley, the creative director for Visionaire magazine and a children’s book author, has been posting hundreds of color fields to his profile. Just colors. “It looks like this beautiful sort of ’70s or ’80s modern painting,” says Budnitz. “It just kind of goes on and on.”
Ello might be the first gentrification story of the Internet. About a year and a half ago Budnitz was hanging out with designer friends when they realized the social networking platforms had decayed. “They’re not fun anymore.” Budnitz wanted to create a place where his friends, mostly designers and coders, could get together. “It would be a little bit like one of those ghettos where all the artists move in first and then kind of make it really nice,” he says. “Eventually all the other people come and set up really nice coffee shops and restaurants and everyone wants to be there.”
From a user perspective, Ello is simultaneously familiar and foreign. Its black and white, minimalist design fades to the background to give the stream of content, complete with emojis and full-width images, the center stage. There are moments when you can’t help feeling that you’re staring at a piece in a museum wondering, “Am I allowed to touch that?” There’s a similar joy in discovering that yes, you can touch, and it does what you thought it should. One such discovery was the “Friend” and “Noise” modalities.
Noise is a compressed view, so that you can look at lots of stuff really fast. Friends is much more–everything is full screen. If you use Ello for a while, you’ll follow about 60 people more or less. And at that point you realize that you want to put some people over in noise. And it’s very natural.
“I know that Google Plus tried something like this a little bit with their circles thing,” says Budnitz. “It wasn’t binary. So you had to drag all these things to different places and then you were kind of lost looking at them and the interface was very confusing.”
It’s the paradox of choice. And Budnitz learned about it firsthand at his luxury bicycle shop, when they began selling different colored bikes. When the shop began offering more than six colors, customers would simply ask what the salespeople liked best. So they narrowed the choices to the six they like best. “And it’s the same for Ello,” he says.
Budnitz has found success largely because he manufactures the products he wants to see in the world. His bicycle shop was started because he didn’t own a car and couldn’t find a bicycle that was beautiful or sturdy enough for his tastes. He founded Kidrobot, a limited-edition toy company, because he wanted to see his artist friends making collectibles.
“It’s kind of like extreme freelance,” he says. “Freelance, but you actually have to make the job that hires you.”
It should come as little surprise, then, that Budnitz does plan to make money from Ello. It won’t be from advertising, but rather a model more akin to the app store. The basic features of the social network will be free, but if you want to add something extra it will cost money. For example, they are thinking of offering a way to create more than one profile on the service–Budnitz says thousands of people are requesting this feature—with the ability to control multiple log-ins from one place costing about $2.
Eventually the API will be opened to outside developers so that they can design new features and make money as well. Outsiders have already reverse-engineered Ello to create an Android app, and an enhanced search function. And technically the network is still in beta; the branding isn’t even final yet.
The beta was released about eight weeks ago, with 90 people testing. Now Budnitz says the site is seeing as much as 45,000 new signups per hour.
Once you’ve been invited, you can invite your friends. But the number of invitations you are allowed fluctuates based on how much Ello’s servers can handle at any given moment.
“We thought we had six months to scale,” says Budnitz. “It happened in six days, so it was kinda intense.”