Let’s clear this up right from the start: Paul Budnitz does not want to take over the world. He didn’t create Ello to disrupt Facebook, even if the media says he did. And he definitely didn’t launch Wuu, an app that looks like Snapchat and Instagram yet stands firmly opposed to so much about them, in a bid to kill them. Really. He swears.
No, Budnitz sees Wuu creating a space beyond those global town squares. A space where you don’t trade like for like or obsessively track your follower count. A space free of #influencers because everything is private. A space where people share silly photos, videos, and messages that vanish after 24 hours. A space—and this is key—without submenus and hamburger buttons. “I get frustrated with lots of little menus,” Budnitz says. “They just drive me crazy.” Budnitz seems nostalgic for the early days of the internet, before every app became everything and everyone lived curated lives in public. Wuu is where you can be on the internet in private.
Wuu is hard to explain without making it sound like a slightly more grokkable version of Snapchat. Open it and you fall into a stream of Wuus: filtered photos, colored text messages, and simple audio recordings. Wuus are to Wuu as Snaps are to Snapchat (and wow is that a strange sentence). You can add friends by user name or email, and send Wuus to one friend or every friend. You can even request a Wuu from people in something akin to a “Whatcha up to?” text. Posts fade over time, and disappear completely after one day.
I find the app silly and strange and purposefully opaque: You tap on a circle to take a photo, a triangle to record audio, or a square for text. Send the word “Trump” and the app sends you and the receiver a picture of a kitten, because Wuu thinks you need a little levity. Send “Bill Murray” and you get a picture of Bill Murray, for presumably the same reason. That’s it, really. You send stuff, you get stuff back. You can’t gamify it or become “Wuu famous.” Your Wuu world is your own, and has nothing to do with anyone else’s. Budnitz finds Wuu especially fun when used with a handful of other people who constantly exchange jokes and pictures and messages.
For the past week, Budnitz has been my only friend on Wuu. When I joined, he sent colorful messages sharing tips for using the app and pointing out hidden features. He used it to confirm our interview. But mostly he shared glimpses of his life: a bike his company is working on, waffles, a shot from the audience of a grade school talent show rehearsal. My phone periodically lit up with a notification: Paul wants a Wuu. I’d tap the notification, launching the app straight into the camera, and snap the first thing that came to mind. A beer, at the end of a long day; the elevator, on my way back from a meeting. Swipe to change filters, type a few words, send. Done. Simple, yet I feel like I’ve gotten to know Paul this week. He feels the same about me.
The idea came to Budnitz as he rode Amtrak home Vermont after a speech in New York. “I was thinking about how me and my wife and my best friends interact using social media,” he says. “I wanted something different. Something that was beautiful and private that didn’t feel like it was built for an advertiser or data miner.” After months of beta testing he hit Apple’s 2,000-user limit for its TestFlight app, so he launched it.
You might be tempted to call Wuu a Snapchat competitor. It is, in the same way so many apps compete to be the place you go when you see a sleepy kitten and decide the world must see it too. And to be fair, you won’t find much in Wuu that you can’t do in Snapchat. The difference is who you’re doing it for. Wuu lets you share stuff with your friends, and your friends alone. “It’s something you experienced more in early Snapchat,” Budnitz says, “before all the public stuff started taking over. Why am I sharing my entire life on the internet?”
In that way, Wuu feels a bit like an experimental art piece or an act of protest. It’s not. “I really expect this to be a sustainable business,” Budnitz says. Sustainable, but not ridiculous. “Not everything has to be worth $20 billion,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be the biggest thing in the entire world to survive.” Ello never killed Facebook, but it did become a wonderful place for artists to curate and share their work. He hopes Wuu finds a similar niche.
I don’t know that I’ll continue using Wuu, or that many others will even start. It’s hard to gain a foothold when your pitch begins and ends with, “It does less stuff.” But in a world where everything tries to be everything and there are too few ways of chatting with friends beyond the reach of influencers, commenters, and #sponcon, Wuu makes sharing dumb stuff on the internet joyful and worry-free. It’s nice.