Unpacking Ello

Ello's minimalist design

Ello’s minimalist design (Screenshot of Mallory’s first sign-in to Ello)

Yesterday, I saw a status on Facebook about a new invite-only “anti-facebook” social network: Ello. FOMO ensued. What was this minimalist social network? Why had I never heard of it? What was I missing?! I had to know, so I asked the friend for an invite to see what the fuss was about. I signed up and…it’s definitely minimal. Having launched beta-testing this past July, Ello is meant to be ad-free. Which equals no ads, or the fancy interfaces they pay for. But also, no signing onto this social network wondering how they know you’ve been waiting for those sweet high-top Missoni Chuck Taylor’s to go on sale (story of my life). So why has Ello blown up recently? Yesterday, CNET reported that they have 35,000 sign-ups an hour. The social psychologist in me wonders what’s making Ello the new up-and-coming social network, and why. Here are some hypotheses:

  1. There’s an increasing desire for a social network that isn’t manipulative.

We all know what those ads pay for (i.e. cool features and sleek design), and what they cost (i.e. your data and your privacy). With the recent uproar over the Facebook mood contagion experiment, social media users are calling for the ability to network without any “secret algorithms” or tracking cookies following them all over the web. A study by Debatin et al found that users who experienced privacy violations were more likely to change their privacy settings than were users who only heard about privacy violations (1). Almost 700,000 Facebook users timelines were manipulated, which left many users wondering if they were in the sample and feeling distrustful.

  1. People love exclusivity.

The $10,000+ Hermes Birkin Bag is infamous for its waitlist, people were still waiting in line for over two weeks to be among the first to own the new iPhone 6 (now in its 5th generation), and elite New Yorkers duke it out for months over a small number of pre-school spots for their kids, costing as much as a year of college tuition. All of these examples share a common element: Scarcity, a well-known persuasion tactic. A classic study by Worchel et al found that participants valued cookies more highly when they were in a near-empty or rapidly-emptying jar, than when they were in a full or rapidly-filling jar (3). Indeed, scarcity is so powerful it is one of Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion.

  1. Brand authenticity is especially hot right now.

Craft breweries are raking in the big bucks, with some marketers suggesting that it’s due to their masterful upstart narratives. Unlike Bud Lite, when you crack open a 21st Amendment Fireside Chat, you know where the beer was made and you feel like you’re supporting some bearded young man with a fermentation tank and a dream. Creating this kind of subculture may be one way brands achieve authenticity. Research by Leigh et al found that MG car owners derived a sense of authenticity from belonging to the MG subculture (2). Participating in a subversive subculture like Ello may have the added allure of the perceived authenticity of the community in light of anti-establish statements, like their manifesto.

The verdict is still out on whether or not Ello will succeed, but there may be strong social forces at work in its burgeoning popularity.

  1. Debatin, B., Lovejoy, J.P., Horn, A.K., & Hughes, B.N. (2009). Facebook and online privacy: Attitudes, behaviors, and unintended consequences. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(1), 83-108.
  1. Leigh, T.W., Peters, C., & Shelton, J. (2006). The consumer quest for authenticity: The multiplicity of meanings within the MG subculture of consumption. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 34(4), 481-493.
  1. Worchel, S., Lee, J., Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of supply and demand on rating of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(5), 906-914.
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