Why Ello's idealism might be the real deal
I haven't paid much attention to Ello, the nascent social network that attracted headlines when it debuted because of its promise not to sell user data or make money from advertisements. And I'll admit that a not-insignificant part of me wished that people would shut the hell up about it.
That changed this morning, when the company announced that it has become a public benefit corporation with a charter that specifically prohibits selling data or showing advertisements, even though it also announced that it has raised $5.5 million from Foundry Group and others. Here's how Ello describes the charter in a letter to users signed by all of its new investors:
Ello’s PBC’s charter states that Ello shall not for pecuniary gain:
1. Sell user-specific data to a third party; 2. Enter into an agreement to display paid advertising on behalf of a third party; and 3. In the event of an acquisition or asset transfer, the Company shall require any acquiring entity to adopt these requirements with respect to the operation of Ello or its assets.
In other words, Ello exists for your benefit, not just to make money. I'm sure that some lawyer could find a way for Ello to back out of its promise, so I won't claim that converting to a public benefit corporation will really stop Ello from going back on its word, but it's refreshing to see a company that's willing to make its ideals more than hollow platitudes by enshrining them with legal documents while retaining the support of its capitalist investors.
There's too much false idealism in tech. I've written about that concept before as it applies to companies like Mozilla, Amazon, and Netflix, all of which act counter to their supposed ideals whenever their businesses are on the line. Quartz recently explained that "don't be evil," the mantra that Google adopted early in its life, is actually meaningless. The list could continue.
Ello's decision to prove to its users, its detractors, and its investors that it doesn't plan on going back on its promise as soon as the debtors start knocking on its doors is a nice change of pace. I'm still not sure that the world needs another social network, and I'm not going to download Ello until a significant number of the people with whom I communicate on Facebook decide to switch to this new service, which becomes more unlikely with each new version of Candy Crush.
But that doesn't mean I can't admire the company's efforts to live up to its promises, especially when so many others have simply presented a facade of idealism whenever it's convenient, only to allow their greed to take over whenever their revenues or other interests are threatened. Ello might have finally created a place for idealism in the tech industry -- or perhaps it'll just prove all the companies that thought they couldn't survive on idealism alone if or when it fails to catch on.
I'm rooting for the former even though, sadly, I expect the latter.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]