Non-creepy social networks make it to your smartphone

In response to fears over privacy, small social networks offer encryption and refrain from selling user data. Now their services are coming to mobile devices.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
5 min read

Josh Miller/CNET

When logging into your favorite social-networking site, do you hear a nagging voice saying the government and advertisers are tracking your data?

These worries have become part of using social networks over the past couple years, though some hear that nagging voice louder than others. In response to outraged -- or just creeped out -- users of these services, app developers are trying to create products that respect privacy while still turning a profit.

Among them is Minds, which launched its mobile app Monday, and Ello, which has announced plans to launch an app soon as well.

For two years, Manhattan-based Minds has operated as a social-networking website that emphasizes privacy and doesn't charge you to reach all of your followers with your posts. It's a bid to win over consumers who are worried about their privacy and are tired of the extra money and effort needed to promote their posts on Facebook, Twitter and other major sites.

Of course, despite fears over privacy, the Internet's biggest social-networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter, remain enormously popular. Prior to launching its app, Minds accumulated 30,000 users on its website, Bill Ottman, the company's chief executive, said. It's not a headcount that will be keeping Facebook executives up at night, with more than 1.4 billion active users sharing their lives on social media titan's site each month.

But Evan Greer, a campaign manager at free speech advocacy group Fight for the Future, said people creating privacy-focused services are more concerned about presenting choices than dominating the market.

"People are creating alternatives to centralized services," he said.

Ottman said the Minds app will be the first social network with a mobile app that is encrypted -- making messages unreadable to anyone but the intended recipient -- and based open-source code. That last part is important because people with programming skills can look over the code to make sure no one can access data on the service who shouldn't. Such "peer reviewed" code makes the service different from other privacy-oriented products, according to Ottman.

"A lot of companies will claim privacy and say they're encrypted," Ottman said. "But it's not real encryption because we have no way of inspecting the code to see if there are backdoors."

Greer said services offering stronger security for consumers have been on the rise in light of the Edward Snowden revelations of massive government data collection.

"There's just been a huge swell of people working on different types of encryption, and trying to make these more accessible for everyday people," Greer said.

So far that work has mostly focused on encrypted chatting and texting services, he noted. While his organization doesn't endorse any particular service, Greer said an encrypted social network follows that trend.

Ottman said Minds runs on a principle of "zero knowledge," meaning they don't collect any of your data.

"If intelligence agencies ask for user data, we can't give it to them," Ottman said, "because we don't have it ourselves."

For its part, the Vermont-based Ello prides itself on not selling user data to advertisers. "We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate -- but a place to connect, create and celebrate life," reads the Ello "manifesto," which goes on to tell users, "You are not a product."

Minds similarly stays away from advertising, but both social networks seek to earn revenues from its users. On top of some paid "VIP services," Minds sells points that let users boost their posts beyond their followers. Minds users can earn points for free by interacting with the service, and users' posts automatically go out to all of their followers.

Spending points can make posts go "viral" and reach people much the way Twitter users can reach the feeds of users who don't follow them with promoted tweets.

The difference between Minds and the social media giants is that some of the giants keep a user's own followers from seeing his or her posts unless the user pays up for a promoted post. MInds hopes this unfettered access to followers will attract people who want to promote their work -- be it a makeup tutorial or a blog post on current events -- but feel a twinge of annoyance at paying that website to promote your messages to their own followers.

Ello also plans to offer paid services in the near future, according to its website. To reassure users, though, the company reorganized as a Public Benefit Corporation and wrote into its charter that it would never start selling data.

Minds has used ads on its website to earn revenue, but Ottman said the company will stop the ads and rely on promoted posts for advertising revenue going forward.

Both Ello and Minds also offer anonymity, which differs from social-networking titan Facebook. That network has touted its "real name policy," which allows users to flag profiles they think are being run under false names, as protecting people from harassment by anonymous users.

Facebook's policy came under fire last year after a group of drag performers said they were locked out of their accounts because they used their stage names. Others argued there were a lot of reasons people might not want to use their real names, such as fear of stalking or harassment from someone who could look them up by name.

Some disgruntled Facebook users saw Ello as a Facebook alternative in the wake of the flap, which is ongoing. Ello even paid for two buses to shuttle protesters to the Facebook campus for a June 1 demonstration, according to several reports. In a statement,Ello said it "is directly supporting these protests," saying the real name policy "directly violates [the] right to free expression."

Ello also has written about its plan to roll out its mobile app available for sale, starting with a service for iPhones to be followed by Android and Windows versions.

Greer said any privacy-focused service will help fosters open communication. "It helps us express ourselves freely and see ourselves as citizens in a democratic society."