In downtown San Francisco you may hear the expression “they’re the future of social media” several times a day. You have to take it with a pinch of salt. It’s not simply a matter of believing the hype: with some people they genuinely believe they understand what went wrong with Facebook and Twitter and know how to fix it.
App.net may well be the start-up that really is the future of social media. Launching in July this year, it is already getting a positive coverage in TechCrunch and attracted over 20,000 paying users.
What started out as a P2P engine for sharing pictures on Twitter has morphed into a complete Twitter alternative. In the Valley, they called it “pivoting”, rethinking where you are going. If you are lucky, your code will go with you.
And the pivot came from a blog post that App.net founder Dalton Caldwell published in July this year. “I wrote What Twitter Could Have Been in response to Twitter starting to shut down the fire hose. I thought ‘that sucks’. We lost something there when they made that decision. An opportunity was lost”.
It sparked an idea at Mixed Media Labs, Caldwell’s company. They could convert the code base of mobile developer kit they were building into a Twitter-like service. The proposal is here.
Fixing what is broken with Twitter
To describe App.net as an ad-free version of Twitter would be to underplay its potential. It has the potential to be global P2P network for delivering secure communications to private groups or a platform for niche gaming and messaging services. And yes, it also offers “tweets”.
The problem with Twitter, according to Caldwell, is the commercial imperative. Twitter needs to make money and it is undermining what made the service so attractive in the first place – that it was so open.
It seems that Twitter believes that open APIs are holding it back. Twitter’s investors are looking for an ROI so the service is turning to advertising, but to deliver the advertising it needs more control over the interface. It can deliver eyeballs to ads on its own web site, and any client it owns (hence the acquisition of Tweetdeck) but it cannot serve up advertising to the dozens of third party applications like Hootsuite, Bit.ly, Instagram and Flipboard that have access to the P2P network via Twitter’s APIs.
This is why it is either acquiring (in the case of Tweetdeck) or blocking (in the case of IFTTT) those third party applications. Who is to say that Flipboard is not next or that the connection to Facebook is not severed?
App.net believes in a simple payment model – users subscribe if they like the service.
Value in networks
Metcalf’s law posits that the value of a network increases exponentially the more nodes you add to it. This is why Twitter’s value has risen so quickly despite its lack of serious revenue.
App.net has applied the theory to its charging model – inversely. Initial users pay $50 a year (and $100 for a developer license).
As the number of users significantly increase, Caldwell says that the subscription costs go down. And if it did not reach 10,000 users, it would give the $50 back to subscribers.
But that’s not going to happen because in the first couple of months they have racked up 20,000 users including former Twitter fan Stephen Fry. This is by no means massive, but it does demonstrate there is an appetite for anti-Twitter.
But some would say that founder Dalton Caldwell has the chutzpah and experience to make it work. He made quite a stir in the Valley when he turned down Facebook’s threat of be hired or be buried. He published the experience on his own blog in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg.
App.net is a platform which does not promote its own interface. It allows third party applications to plug into it through APIs. These could be applications like Buffer which also allows users to publish status updates to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on. But other approved third party apps include a chess program which allows distant players to engage in head to head battle without using a gaming site. There is a listing of App.net applications here.
As well as the revenue model, the other major difference between App.net and Twitter is the newcomer offers 256 characters of text and 8kb annotations. Why is that important? These annotations could be location information or presence or moves on a chess board. The payload could also be encryption key. This would allow users to create their own private messaging group, a la Blackberry Messenger. The potential for enterprise applications is vast.
App.net is currently working on a revenue share model with the third-party client apps to encourage them to innovate. “People who build the best apps would get paid,” said Caldwell. “Ultimately we want to prevent the monoculture. There is a place for ad support, and there is a role for free. But I think there should be both. Generally speaking competition is good.”
Critics would argue that it is perhaps too late to build a new social network, witness the mountains that Google Plus must climb. One of those critics is MG Siegler, former editor of TechCrunch.
But maybe App.net is different. It does not need tens of millions of users to be an attractive proposition to advertisers. It just needs to have enough “network scale” to be of value to subscribers.
And I’ve joined them. I get it.