It's one thing to say your social network will never be like Facebook, it's another to enshrine that promise in legal documents. Ello, a social site whose claim to fame is an anti-ad manifesto, is doing just that by filing to become a public benefit corporation.
A benefit corporation is a company that chooses to be socially conscious of how its decisions affect not just shareholders or investors, but also its customers, employees, and the environment. Ello won't get any tax benefits for being a do-good social network, but the charter the company filed prevents current and future investors and owners from ever profiting from ads or user data.
"In other words, Ello exists for your benefit, and will never show ads or sell user data," Ello founder Paul Budnitz wrote in a Thursday Ello post.
Ello is growing rapidly, ballooning to 1 million members in the last two months, according to Wired. Another 3 million are waiting to be let in. The network also announced that it raised $5.5 million in venture capital, but its investors had to sign the ad-free charter, which you can read in full here.
So if ads are off the table forever, how will the social network make money? Budnitz plans to model Ello after the most successful company in the world: Apple.
"We will make money, and we are a business, and we have been really open about that since the beginning," Budnitz told Inc.in an interview earlier this month. "Our model is based on a very successful business model that has been applied to all kinds of other things except social networking, which is the iPhone model. In its most basic form, Ello will be fun and free to use. But after that there are features that some groups want really badly--for example one of the most requested features is the ability to control multiple accounts from a single log in. We might charge a dollar for that. It would be like the App Store."
That sounds good, but it's not exactly similar to how Apple makes money. Apple's model is to sell you expensive hardware at a comfortable profit margin, and the software and services--and even the App Store--enhance the experience to make you want to buy the hardware. Apple wouldn't give you a basic iPhone for free and then upcharge you to add more features that you want really badly. If you wanted features Apple isn't providing, you'd probably go buy a different phone.
Anyway, Ello is technically still a beta network that has tons of ideas about features to add but isn't fully built out yet. Users are dying for a "like" or "favorite" button, which Budnitz says is coming, but don't expect the feature to be like Facebook's or Twitter's. Budnitz in an Ello post earlier this month recommended people use the bread emoji to signify a nod or thumbs up. It's a little unconventional, but, hey--that's Ello.
In the meantime, the network has added a notification center, blocking and muting functions, and is working on better search, an NSFW mode, sound and video embeds, and a couple much-needed apps. Ello might never be as big as Facebook, but if it keeps working to woo skeptics, it might just be a viable alternative.