Ello Taps Ad, Data Frustration Playing Familiar Counterculture Card

You have to admire a startup that actually professes to have a “Manifesto.” It is the stuff of radical salons, first (often last) issues of college underground newspapers, or student strikes. In the rampant race for cash, IPOs, or getting mentioned in some “30 Under 30”  at a tech news site, there hasn’t been much that resembles principles or mission to the digital “revolution.”

But the hot topic of last week in social media circles, Ello, has a manifesto, a pointed one, and it is aimed at the ad and data-driven marketing industry. “Your social network is owned by advertisers,” the fledgling social network argues. “Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data,” it continues.
“Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.”

Their response is a tagline that seems born of Haight-Ashbury, mid-wifed by Steve jobs and tempered in contemporary nomenclature: “We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency.”



The Ello network offers itself up as generally free to users and completely free of advertising. It plans to support itself through selling to users special features. Ello does use your data to improve the service, and in fact uses the same “anonymized and aggregated” language most ad platforms use. But it promises never to sell the data in any form to third parties or to use it to target you for advertising. It also invokes the familiar cant of digital democracy fans: that these platforms should empower people, not turn them into objects.  

The network was started by a small group of designers and programmers who profess frustration with the ad-cluttered experiences at the other major social nets that turn the user into a “product.” Sound familiar? That is the same language Apple’s Tim Cook used in recent weeks to assure people it would not be gathering data about their shopping habits when it implements the Apple Pay cardless mobile payment solution next month. “You’re not our product,” he stated, clearly aiming at Google, Facebook and a startup culture completely addicted to gathering data.

Cook is being disingenuous, of course. His own iAd product leverages tons of targeting data to fill our apps with ads mostly pushing the same mobile games Facebook and Google are pushing in their apps.

The idea that data-driven marketing has productized the consumer for the benefit of advertisers is not a new concept. It is the foundation of the media/advertising dynamic: packing and delivering audiences to ad buyers. Digital media simply has made that relationship more overt, which is perhaps surprising to the uninformed or young.  

Nevertheless, Ello says its appeal is generating 3,000 to 4,000 requests an hour to be invited into the beta. Nothing sells quite like a principled rejection of selling.

One could argue perhaps cynically that countercultural ripples such as this are themselves an inevitable part of the larger advertising industrial complex. They signal when some aspect of the big bad machine has gone too far, generating resentment among consumers that requires a minor correction -- or something that resembles a correction. The small rebellion is acknowledged by the powers that be and ultimately co-opted into serving the larger interests of the establishment. The natural/organic foods “movement” is a good recent example of a seeming countercultural trend that itself could become a marketing tactic.

It is unclear at this point if Ello will outlive its week of fame and establish an outpost of resistance to the Facebook-Twitter-Pinterest triumvirate. Ello seems an inevitable response to a year when all of these networks fundamentally changed their experiences in order to adopt aggressive advertising models. Facebook and Twitter were butt-ugly to begin with. Now they are ugly, cluttered and openly touting how effectively they will use our data to stalk us with ads wherever we are online.

They had it coming. In fact we heard some of this same anti-ad, UX-first rhetoric just a few years ago -- mainly from the same social nets that Ello is criticizing. 

2 comments about "Ello Taps Ad, Data Frustration Playing Familiar Counterculture Card".
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  1. KATIE MEIER from INITIATIVE, September 30, 2014 at 9:09 p.m.

    Steve- Hi there. I'm the author of the 'other ello' piece running today (

    I wanted to respond to your opinion. In particular, to this thought you put forward: "Nothing sells quite like a principled rejection of selling."

    True enough.

    Here's where I think you'll find my piece helpful- A lot of us aren't trying to sell, and don't want to. Scale is not the ultimate objective, shocking as that may be for marketers.

    The real issue ello is bringing forward is whether its ok to set limits on 'enoughness.' Marketing rarely asks the question: "How much is enough?"

    ello has asked that question and answered with the retort, that frankly they don't give an f- about getting big. (See this interview w ello founder, Budnitz-

    If marketers assume scale and growth is the goal of every company, than sure, ello is anti-selling just to sell, exactly like you say.

    Just thought I'd give you an alternate angle that considers the idea scale and growth may not be the driving force for everyone.

    I know- It's a pretty Haight-Ashbury though. But in the new wave of social resistance to invasive media, which I'll call myself out and say I am very much a part of, we realize limits are actually a good thing.

    Limits preserve quality, community, and values among likeminded souls.

    Thanks for your awesome work... and nice to meet. :)

  2. Jim Meskauskas from Media Darwin, Inc., October 1, 2014 at 1:24 p.m.

    Nice piece, Steve. And nice comment, Ms. Meier. It is possible, of course, that you are both right, and a "third way" emerges that is both a response to fatigue with hyper-invasive data-driven advertising business models and a genuine capitalistic endeavor. It would be interesting to see if a kind of "virtual sustainability" model emerged from this experiment. While my own cynicism borne of 20 years in advertising and marketing dares me to hope so, there is a quiet -- for now -- movement among a younger generation of media consumers who just might embrace the kind of freemium model Ello is proposing and make the current panopticon methods, if not obsolete, at least not the only choice. As with all thing, time will tell!

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