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What is Ello? An ad-free, invite-only site that could not care less

What is Ello? An ad-free, invite-only site that could not care less
Haven't been invited? Here's a peek at Ello. (Ello / screen grab)

"Hi @sleasca. Welcome to Ello, a simple, beautiful & ad-free social network."

Yes! I'd found my way in to one of the Web's hottest new invite-only clubs. Too bad I wasn't actually invited.

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Ello, the latest social-media lightning rod, drawing Internet love as well as hate, publicly launched several weeks ago. Users are allowed to sign up to receive an invite that eventually gives them access. I did. And quickly discovered I was on a very long waiting list. I felt like I was wearing sweatpants on a Monday and Ello was saying, "You can't sit with us."

Luckily a friend had gone over to Reddit and searched around for an invite code. Voila. In this way, I sneaked in through the back door of Ello. Once there, I was greeted with more of the site's message:

"Ello's minimal design puts emphasis on high-quality content, and makes it easy to connect with the people you really care about. Ello does not allow paid ads, and will never sell user data to third parties."

This minimal design and ad-free experience is the heart of Ello, according to co-founder Todd Berger.

"We looked at everything that is out there from a design standpoint and then we kind of said ... this and threw everything out, and we just asked ourselves, 'How would we make this?' "

Ello's first-time-user experience drew the ire of users. It's very minimal. There are no visible bells and whistles, and if you don't get it, that's just fine with Ello.

"If it's too jarring, that's great," Berger said. "Maybe they'll catch up. We did not design this thing to be a mass audience product."

It may be all black and white now, but Ello has plans, although ads are not among them.

The site is now, and according to Berger will forever be, an ad-free experience. To make up the difference and sustain the company financially, Ello will begin offering features its users can buy for $1 to $2. Some future features will allow users to customize their Ello experience or sign in to multiple accounts at once. Think of it as the App Store of social networks.

But right now, the site is just trying to catch up to demand that took the Ello team by surprise. At one point, it was maxing out at a little more than 34,000 requests per hour for an invitation to join.

So before users get to test out features and customize, Ello must first fix its search function and give participants the ability to mute or block other users.

If users can't deal with the work in progress, that's also OK with Berger.

"Maybe come back later, maybe don't."

Ello is cool. It's cavalier. It doesn't care if you don't like it. It's only serving the people who do. So will it revolutionize social media?

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"I think people are just desperate for something new," Cullen Hoback told The Times. Hoback is the director of "Terms and Conditions May Apply," a 2013 documentary about what corporations and governments can learn about people through their use of the Internet and cellphones.

"I think that people have really hit the tipping point here and they're desperate for the next thing and something that respects them and something that gives them what they want," he said, "which is the ability to connect with other people, connect with their past, to share but not feel dirty about it."

Hoback was referring to that feeling among social media users of sharing content not only with friends but also the corporate world -- posting baby photos and being served diaper ads.

The lack of ads on Ello seems to have struck a chord with users, and Hoback said for "broadcasting cool stuff to the world and sharing, there is no reason not to join Ello." But he cautioned users that they are not getting a "private" experience, "you're just getting an ad-free experience."

Although Ello uses Google Analytics to provide insights that help improve the user experience of its site, it does not share personally identifiable data with Google. According to Berger, the site tracks users so they may better serve them in the future. It will track things like time on site, referring domains and any features users spend a great deal of time on.

"If you don't even like the fact that we are using that, turn it off," Berger said. "We don't care. And we won't track."

If you want a more private social experience, you may want to flip the switch to off because, as Hoback notes, "If the company can see the information, then the government can see the information."

Ello isn't Facebook, or Twitter or Tumblr. That could be the best part about it. It's trying to do something different. It may be too different for some, but it really doesn't matter to Berger.

"We really just made the thing we wanted to make."

If you want to follow the L.A. Times on Ello, you can't. We aren't cool enough to have gotten off the waiting list yet.

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