Yoholla: Privacy worth paying for?

A new social network wants to charge you for the right to remain private in public. Is that worth $5 a month to you?

Would you be willing to pay for privacy? And if so, how much?

In a blog post last year I asked whether Facebook should charge users for the right to keep their information private. Apparently I’m not the only one asking those questions.

Last fall I got an email from someone inviting me to check out Yoholla, a barely-in-beta social net built around the concept of privacy.

[ See also: Facebook's China Syndrome ]

Yoholla calls itself “the World’s First Private & Secure Social Network.” According to the site’s About page, it is “designed to give you maximum control over connecting and sharing online with friends and family” for just $5 a month.

[img_assist|nid=155739|title=Yoholla Home Page|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=597|height=519]

Well, maybe. As far as I can tell, the key privacy differences between Yoholla and Facebook are the following:

* Yoholla uses more secure https connections by default (you have to manually turn that on in Facebook), so some nearby snoop can’t capture your datastream as it flies across a WiFi network.

* Less of your profile information is public by default, and you can control more of it than Facebook lets you.

* There are no ads on Yoholla; thus your information isn’t being shared with advertisers.

* There are no spammy apps, which are major data hoovers.

Yoholla is also different in another big way. In addition to charging money to access the service, it also promises to help you make money – a lot of money – by signing up family and friends.

According to the Yoholla Rewards program, you’d make $1 a month for every person you sign up. You’d then make 20 cents for every person they signed up, and 20 cents for every person your friend’s friend signed up, and so on.

In other words, if you signed up five friends, and they each signed up five more friends, etc, you’d eventually be clearing close to $20,000 per month.

[img_assist|nid=155741|title=Yoholla Rewards Calculator|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=485|height=363]

If that sounds like a multi-level marketing scheme, that’s because it is.

Yoholla spokesperson Brian Banmiller tells me the network terminated its Rewards program last December, saying early users balked at the idea of MLM and potential for spam that could result. But as I write this, more than a week after we spoke, Yoholla is still advertising the program on its home page and elsewhere.

Banmiller says that while Yoholla is still working out its business model, it has already raised some $3.2 million in angel investment money, which it has been pouring into slick videos and the Yoholla Bus Tour, slated to make its way across the US later this year.

There are are a few other differences, of course. Facebook is about 10,000 times more sophisticated than Yoholla, which has a look and feel reminiscent of early dot com startups.

One more key difference between Yoholla and Facebook: nobody’s home. Banmiller says Yoholla has “thousands” of users. I used the service on and off for several months, and it never felt like there were more than a few hundred.

And that is the reason why any new social net faces an almost insurmountable challenge. People want to go where their friends are. And their friends are on Facebook. I’m not sure that’s a barrier any new net can overcome, no matter how private (or profitable) it claims to be.

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