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CEO Paul Budnitz explains what makes Ello different

Ello is the hottest new social media site around. Ello says it doesn't track users and won't sell ads. But many have challenged the company on that issue. Ello founder Paul Budnitz spoke about these questions during an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

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A lot has been written criticizing the new social media site Ello. Will it sell out to advertisers? Is it the anti-Facebook?

Ello founder Paul Budnitz has just one answer to these questions. No.

“I think there is a misperception among some naive people that think this site will [eventually] sell data or advertising. It will never do that,” Mr. Budnitz says. “There should be no doubt about that. The founders of Ello still control a vast amount of the company and we are committed to that vision. We are idealistic people."

A social media site without advertising is the core of the Ello mission. Budnitz says that's why he created it.

“I felt like the social media sites were so cluttered. It was hard to find my friends. My friends are posting and they are being hidden by advertisements. It wasn’t any fun anymore,” Budnitz says. "I asked, ‘Why don’t we just make a social media site ourselves?’ ” 

And he did. With the help of his friends Lucian Föhr and Todd Berger, he created a site that was used by a small group of friends, but eventually more and more people wanted to join. So, on Aug. 7, Budnitz opened the site to the public with just 90 Ello users. Skip forward eight weeks, the site has more than a million users and is signing up, at its peak, between 40,000 and 50,000 an hour. The site is still in Beta testing, with the team working around the clock to catch up with growth, meaning the site is admittedly buggy.

There are a lot of people who have questioned Ello’s ability to make money. If it shuns advertising, how can Ello be profitable?

Budnitz has an answer. They are modeling the business model off Apple’s App Store. For a few dollars, Ello users can buy different features they can use on the website. 

“Its sort of like buying an iPhone that’s empty. Everyone buys apps to customize it. Ello is simple on purpose. You can customize it anyway you want with features,” he says. “We are applying it to a social network. The people who are cynical [about] our success are relegating the Internet to one big billboard. And I think it’s sad that the Internet is one big billboard."

Ello is a small company. It doesn't employ huge teams to sale ads and track users. It can be profitable as long as they can afford to build the infrastructure, which Budnitz says is cheaper than most people think. And they aren't trying to build a social media empire, like Facebook. They just want to create a good social media site. 

“There is a thought that we are a competitor to Facebook. We are not competing with Facebook,” Budnitz says. “We see ourselves as something completely different. I’m flattered that we are being compared to them, but I think there is some misunderstanding of scale. We are building a great community, and we are building a profitable business.”

Judith Donath, a faculty fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, believes that the allure of Ello isn’t how great it is. Ello doesn't really do anything new. Instead, the attraction is user frustration with Facebook.

“The main attraction to Ello is that it is claiming to not be commercial,” Dr. Donath says. “Because Facebook and other sites are commercial, their main customers are businesses. Ello is saying they aren’t going to do this. Here, the user is the customer. But the experience is that the site isn't very functional or well designed.”

Many have questioned if Ello's manifesto against ads is actually happening. Netflix is on Ello. Budnitz Bicycles, a company Budnitz founded in 2010, has an Ello page. Their pages are filled with ads for the companies. So while Ello might not sell ads on the site, will it allow companies to create pages that push advertising?

"The great thing about Ello is that you only see in your newsfeed people/brands that you’ve followed," an Ello representative says via e-mail. "So, if you don’t want to see these brands, you can simply unfollow them or move them to noise."

Budnitz says he just wants to create a social media site that people enjoy using without the annoyance of ads or tracking.

“I’m doing everything I can to make it easy and simple with a good community of users," he says. “We are proving that there is a hunger for another model of the Internet.”

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