Dalton Caldwell, the man behind failed startups Imeem and PicPlz, recently ruminated on what he wished Twitter could have become. Now he’s moving ahead with his own paid alternative that promises to shun advertising and focus on customer trust.
Caldwell unveiled his big venture called App.net in a lengthy blog post Friday and kicked off a month-long Kickstarter-esque pledge campaign aimed at testing his theory about the need for just such a platform. He’s looking to raise $500,000 from 10,000 people, which he thinks will be enough money to get started and also validate his idea. App.net was originally envisioned as a paid service for mobile developers but has been repurposed to tackle this larger goal of creating a paid version of Twitter.
The product will offer a real-time feed and a social graph similar to Twitter available from a mobile application or website. Ultimately, App.net will support third-party apps built on top of the App.net ecosystem. Caldwell said the consumers aren’t given much choice right now in social startups, which are largely dependent on advertising for revenue. That leads to businesses that work to ultimately sell their users and their data to advertisers, he said. He believes there’s enough of a market for another business model that puts customer and their trust first.
Why isn’t there an opportunity to pay money to get an ad-free feed from a company where the product is something you pay for, not, well, you. To be clear: I’m glad there are ad-supported options, but why does that seem like the only option? For example, I have the option of buying a Mac if I don’t want to buy a crapware-infested PC, right? I have no interest in completely opting-out of the social web. But please, I want a real alternative to advertising hell… I would gladly pay for a service that treats me better. (Emphasis Caldwell’s)
App.net promises to never run ads or sell user data to advertisers. Users will be able to export, back-up or delete their data. The service will supposedly provide developers with a predictable business to build upon and will be focused on satisfying paying users and improving the experience.
Caldwell’s proposal follows a Kickstarter project from Penny Arcade, an online comics publisher, who is looking at replacing the revenue it currently gets from advertising with funding from fans. The two projects raise new questions about whether traditionally ad-supported services can build a viable model by charging users up front in exchange for a product that eschews ads.
I’d personally like to see new alternatives emerge though any competitor ultimately needs to get people in the door to work. 10,000 believers might be enough to get started but you have to recruit the masses to succeed and that can be hard when the experience on Twitter is still very positive for most people. People are increasingly aware that their “free” social networks are really making their money off users and their data. But for the most part, inertia, familiarity and data lock-in keep people from looking elsewhere. And App.net ultimately can’t just be an ad-free alternative, it will have to be better somehow, more compelling, with some kind of killer features or such a radically better design, to get people to switch.
So I’m not very optimistic about App.net’s chances. And the truth is, it may be hard for any big social network to become profitable, as Derek Powazek wrote today. But I’d like to see Caldwell take a stab at shaking up the current dependence on ad-supported services.