Ello is coming, but Facebook has little to fear (for now)

Facebook (FB) has had a target painted on its URL for years. The social network that is all but ubiquitous in the western world is also the site that many people love to hate. Whether it's confusion and anger over the site's confusing privacy settings, it's ever-more intrusive advertising, or its real name policy that prohibits users from signing on with pseudonyms, Facebook as a brand doesn't have a ton of good will.

That's why competitors are inevitable. Myspace, of course, couldn't make a go of it. Despite a massive redesign and rebranding effort, MySpace's reputation simply could not be resuscitated and it has more or less disappeared without a trace. But now there's a new kid on the block: Ello.

Only about 2 months old right now, Ello is a startup social network founded by serial entrepreneur Paul Budnitz which promises in its manifesto to be an advertising-free social network that is more or less the anti-Facebook. It promises not to sell to you, not to sell you (the site minimizes the data it collects) and to not require real names to set up user accounts. Indeed, this last item is what garnered Ello a lot of attention in the past few weeks, as some members of the LGBT community have flocked to Ello to protest Facebook's real name policy.

Visit the Ello site, and you'll learn that the social network hopes to be simple, beautiful, and respect user privacy. That might be the ultimate goal, but using Ello today reveals those goals to be very aspirational.

First things first: Not only is Ello in beta (and seemingly a very early beta, at that) but you can't easily get an account to try it out quite yet. Some existing users have invites to share, but otherwise you need to request an invitation and get on the waiting list. Ello claims that they are getting over 50,000 requests an hour to join, and they're onboarding users slowly so as not to overload their servers.

But once inside Ello, it's not quite simple and beautiful. The interface is a very flat, black and white design that dedicates a full half of the screen to displaying avatars, and the right side is, essentially, a news feed. It's not especially attractive, though aesthetic fit and finish coding might be coming later. Nor can you interact with anyone's posts; there's no equivalent to a Like button, nor can you leave comments.

Much more troubling, though, is the total inattention to privacy. There's no way to control who sees what on Ello; once you create a post, anyone can see it, whether they're your friends or total strangers. Facebook's privacy settings are confusing, to be sure, but at least they technically exist.

Ello is also Web-only, at least for now. There are no mobile apps, so you can't install Ello on your iPhone or Android device.

For all of those reasons, Ello is probably not a very interesting place to be right now. Not only is it clearly under construction, but it's something of a ghost town. No one you know is there, and even the accounts that Ello deems their "favorites" are sparse profiles with a handful of test posts, mainly to see what stuff looks like when it appears on the site and to assess if features like Animated GIFs work (they do).

Will Ello become a worthy competitor to Facebook? Perhaps. But it won't be anytime soon. And without advertising and user data mining, Ello is going to have to figure out how it's going to keep the lights on long enough to become an alternative to Facebook.

Photo courtesy Ello