What the Ello Is Happening? Behind the New Social Network's Big Week and Musical Roots

Somehow, the Vermont-based serial entrepreneur and artist behind KidRobot, a team of nine developers in Denver and a handful of designers in Boulder have collectively tapped into the hopes and frustrations of hundreds of thousands of the web’s denizens over the course of a few short days. Without spending a dime on marketing.

The founders of Ello are artists and musicians themselves. Their artist and musician friends were among those first invited to use the Beta version of the social network, and those friends invited their friends. If anything, the phenomenal growth of Ello this week proves that artists are still cool. And that they’re sick of playing by Facebook’s rules in order to market themselves.

Billboard had the opportunity to talk with a couple of people who had been thrust by forces beyond their control into the hottest heart of internet hype. We spoke with Ello CEO Paul Budnitz and front-end developer/ersatz PR guy Justin Gitlin separately over the phone, and, happily, can report that as of 3pm PT last Friday (Sept. 26), neither had taken to ranting naked on the street, like the guy who made the Kony video.

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In fact, Budnitz planned to create a slide show for a pre-scheduled presentation and play with his daughter over the weekend. Gitlin was going to a wedding and working on software-based visuals for a musical collaboration. Given their sudden turn in the public eye, they seemed  grounded, though Gitlin mentioned that when his girlfriend had ordered him to sit in the bedroom with his eyes closed for 20 minutes the night before, he found it terrifying.

Both Budnitz and Gitlin confirmed that they’d been caught off-guard by their success, which is also readily apparent in the communications between Ello's new users and its founders, as bugs get fixed and new features rushed out.

“We figured that if we ever got to where we are right now, it would be a year or so down the road... so there were a lot tools that just weren’t ready yet,” Gitlin said.

Ello, 2014.

The layout of Ello.Courtesy of Ello

The network and its creators have saved face by making changes as users request them and by explaining themselves continuously as they try to catch up with the demands of a service receiving 4,000 new user requests per hour. That's up from just 90 users five weeks ago.

“We got some tech press early in the week. Then, when Facebook started enforcing its names policy, which makes sense for them because they can make more money if they know exactly who you are, it pissed a lot of people off, and at some point there was a mass exodus,” Budnitz said.

The Ello phenomenon is sure to be dissected by marketing and advertising professionals for some time to come -- which is ironic, given that Ello’s rapid uptake was by all accounts a reaction to the invasiveness of advertising and marketing. The lessons are boilerplate marketing gospel: viral growth gears up when you can influence the influencers to do your marketing for you. That Ello accomplished their feat by swearing off advertising makes it a tough nut to crack for marketers. Rest assured, those marketers are working on it. And Ello’s founders are readying their defenses.

“The big thing that people don’t want is corporate accounts spamming users,” Gitlin said. “We’re trying to figure out how to protect people from corporate entities because they are invasive.”

Minutes after we hung up, Gitlin, who goes by 'Cacheflow' on Ello, posted:

“We just had to delete a spammy pizza_hut user, whether it was fake or not”

Do we need to point out that startup founders usually brag about how well their products work with advertising?

Intentionally or not, Ello is making a play at being a big counter-cultural tent, while maintaining the familiar feature set of a social network. This tack has many established and would-be culture-makers running to its untrammelled interface.

“We’ve been slowly letting people in through the invite process in kind of a curated fashion. We’re shouting out some of the bigger-name people on our personal feeds as they sign up,” Gitlin said, citing Glitch Mob, Kevin Key of Skinny Puppy, Starky and Low Limit as some of the bigger musical acts to show up so far. “I don’t know, do any of those names ring a bell for you?”

An invite-only, ‘curated’ entry system for the nascent site is understandable, given that the company’s servers are increasingly overwhelmed. But it also makes Ello look a lot like an exclusive social network for cool people, at least a little reminiscent of the “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” that Allen Ginsberg wrote about 60 years ago. While this "forward-thinking" set of folks has a powerful influence, they’re a vast minority, and their disembarkation to Ello might not be noticed within the Facebook newsfeeds of ordinary mortals.

Musicians we contacted for this article had as much to say about the indignities of Facebook as the virtues of Ello.

“Only a small percentage of the people who follow a [Facebook] band page actually see any content from that page. If you want more of your fans to get … anything pertaining to your band, you have to spend money,” said Oakland band Once and Future in an email. “If there's a service out there that will get the word out that's free, we're going to use it. At the end of the day, they're just tools. This kind of issue has only really been a problem with Facebook for us and it affects us as fans of other acts as well.”

One remarkable/frustrating component of the network’s sudden popularity among musicians? Music can’t be posted directly to Ello.

“After [we address] the privacy stuff, the next thing we’re going to build is Soundcloud and media-embedding capability, that is something musicians need, but it’s not quite there for a couple of weeks,” said Gitlin.  An electronic musician and small label owner, he is on intimate terms with the needs of music-makers. “My dad is a retired, full-time smooth jazz musician,” he said. “He was in the smooth jazz charts and had a good following on Facebook, but then had to pay to get the same level of interaction, and he started looking for something else.”

Drawn by the promise of a level playing field and a comprehensible way to reach their community without the interlocution of an opaque algorithm, musicians didn’t seem put off by the lack of such features. For them, there was something deeper at play than the finer points of a particular UI.

Ello has come in for criticism due to its lack of a revenue model. Earlier last week, when Ello was still a much simpler creature, Budnitz told Betabeat that he hoped to pursue a business model akin to that of Radiohead’s “pay what you will” release of its album In Rainbows (ahem). Budnitz tells Billboard that the plan was to offer certain upgrades, like different colors or shared band accounts, for a couple of bucks. He said falling storage costs and the relative simplicity of an ad-free social network could make this viable for Ello. Gitlin compared Ello’s revenue scheme to the freemium model of successful video games, in which, for a small payment, users could purchase special features. But he added that “a lot of people have asked us just to add a donate button.”

“We’re not trying to be a $30 billion company, so we have a different perspective. At the same time, there are people who are upset that we are even a business -- which is ridiculous,” he said.

If Ello can keep its current users happy and continue to grow, it will most likely find a way to pay for it. Wasn’t that the logic for Facebook?

A big part of keeping its current and rapidly growing community happy is proving itself useful for the self-promotion of artists.

“I don’t know if Ello will be a way for people to find and keep up on bands,” says Sierra Frost, who runs a Breakup Records out of her Portland living room and performs in the band Bed. “Myspace used to be that, but then there were Myspace sluts and it got kind of scary and people moved to Facebook. In some ways it’s nice, we’re allowed every 6 years or so to start anew, in a more mature way.”

Frost’s suggestion of some sort of cycle at play got me thinking. For some reason I recalled that the hippies had held a "funeral for the hippies" in the Haight in San Francisco in 1967. Google led me to a Lodi News-Sentinel article from that time featuring this quote from one of its organizers:

“After the ceremony, the people will rise up and build a new community...the present community is dead but the movement is not.”

In a 1968 television interview with Hugh Hefner available on YouTube, Jerry Garcia explains the funeral ceremony:

“That was all of us saying, we’re not going to tell you anymore what we’re doing.”

Sure, a lot has changed since then -- but the underlying struggle between art and its commerce-driven appropriating forces shines through. The hippies got fed up with the advertising-funded treatment they’d gotten at the hands of Life magazine and the network news, so they left the scene.

Maybe there is a dialectic in our culture between the forces of those perceived as cool and those who’d like to use that perception to sell life-insurance. The wheel turns, and the opposing forces retrench for the next battle. The hippies melted into the woods of Cascadia  and went to seed. The ad men set upon what they left behind and humped it, until the punks caught their eye.

Enjoy the fight.