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Summary:

Most critics of Dalton Caldwell’s App.net project seem to see it as a replacement for Twitter, only with users paying for the service rather than advertisers. But what the service really wants to be is a central messaging bus and open ecosystem for the social web.

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Much of the coverage of App.net — the ambitious project from entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell that just raised $500,000 through a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding campaign — has focused on the idea that Caldwell is building a “paid version of Twitter.” That has led a number of critics to complain that no one wants an alternative to Twitter and therefore App.net will almost certainly fail. But whether it succeeds or not, the idea behind the venture is actually much bigger than just building a paid Twitter clone. What Caldwell wants to do is create what he and others think Twitter could have been before it decided to become a global media entity: namely, a unified message bus for the social web, or a way of tying together multiple apps and services into a single real-time information delivery system.

This is a much more ambitious goal than just cloning Twitter or duplicating some of its features. And while Caldwell has beaten many people’s expectations by even getting funded in the first place, it remains to be seen whether enough users and developers will be willing to pay for the service to make it an effective resource — especially since similar efforts to create an open ecosystem for the social web have mostly failed. Are there enough supporters of an open standard to make a difference, or is the social web doomed to be a world of competing proprietary walled gardens?

App.net wants to be a platform, not just an app

Orian Marx, the creator of New York-based startup Siftee, does a good job in a recent post describing the difference between what the alpha version of App.net looks like now and the broader ambitions of Caldwell and his partners. What you see when you go to the site appears to be a very stripped-down version of Twitter, but with far fewer users and features, and that has led many to dismiss it as a short-lived clone — one that will die because it won’t be able to compete with the kind of network effects Twitter has developed (although Caldwell argues network effects can be a negative as well as a positive). As Marx describes it:

“App.net will combine the simplicity of cloud infrastructure with the power of web frameworks to deliver the best platform for developing social web applications.”

In other words, the alpha is more like a test case or prototype of what could be built by using the platform App.net is trying to construct — one that uses open standards such as PubSubHubbub and ActivityStreams and other protocols that make it easy to distribute information through multiple networks, as well as allowing users to find and “follow” other users, and other things that we associated with Twitter or social networking in general. One comparison would be to Amazon Web Services, which is a collection of tools like the Elastic Compute Cloud or EC2 that developers and companies can use to build services on top of.

Another way of thinking about what App.net is trying to do is to think about what email used to look like, or (for those who aren’t quite as old) what instant messaging used to be like. There were competing platforms and competing standards, and nothing like an open API or any of the other things we associate with allowing different services to exchange information. Users of CompuServe Mail couldn’t easily send mail to other mail-hosting services, and later on users of ICQ or AOL’s Instant Messenger couldn’t easily chat with users of other competing platforms such as Microsoft’s MSN or Google’s GChat.

As Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures notes in a recent post about the potential benefits of App.net, what the social web lacks is a way of tying together various standards and protocols that allow anyone to integrate or exchange information easily with any other similar service — in the same way that anyone can send email to anyone else on the internet:

“It would a huge benefit to society if we can get with social networking to where we are with email today: it is fundamentally decentralized with nobody controlling who can email whom about what, anyone can use email essentially for free, there are opensource and commercial implementations available and third parties are offering value added services.”

Will the promise of an open platform be enough?

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While Twitter has become a powerful information-publishing system and a kind of real-time newswire, it is still a private corporation with its own commercial interests, and as it expands its attempts to control more of its network — in order to monetize it more effectively — it is clamping down on the use of its API in ways that have caused friction with both developers and users. Much of the impetus for Caldwell’s project came from that dissatisfaction, and the feeling that Twitter at some point gave up on its desire to be an information utility and chose to become an advertising-based media entity instead. As one App.net supporter put it:

“[App.net] provides a solid API platform that is less likely to be yanked out from under our feet when the VCs get antsy and want to see a profit or acquisition.”

There have been other efforts to create a kind of open platform for the social web, however, and most have not ended well: one was an attempt to create a public standard for social connections called OpenSocial, which was driven by Google but designed to be an open protocol. Although the project still exists, it made very little headway, and was more or less doomed when Google recently killed off its Social Graph API. Rightly or wrongly, the project was seen as Google’s attempt to compete with Facebook — but its efforts have since been diverted to promoting its own Google+ network (which ironically still doesn’t have a fully open API of its own).

In some ways, Caldwell’s App.net also has similarities to FriendFeed, the federated social network that former Google staffers Bret Taylor and Paul Buchheit (one of the original developers of Gmail) created in 2007, which allowed users to pull in messages and updates from multiple networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. FriendFeed was eventually acquired by Facebook in 2009 for $48 million and Taylor became the company’s chief operating technology officer and one of the architects of its market-dominating “open graph platform.”

Will App.net ultimately wind up on the scrap heap along with other attempts to create an open social ecosystem, a victim of the market power of incumbents like Facebook and Twitter and/or the ambivalence of users? Or will it gain enough support to become a real alternative to the walled gardens that currently make up the social web?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Rosaura Ochoa and See-ming Lee

  1. Stephanie Yonus Monday, August 13, 2012

    Unfortunately I don’t see it gaining too much popularity among users if they’re being charged – but then again it could be a good filter! Great piece.

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    1. Thanks, Stephanie.

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  2. If people really want a non-ad supported Twitter, why not use identi.ca, or build a new service based on the underlying open source code? Available free from the statusnet project on gitorious, the platform just celebrated its 4th birthday as a robust Twitter replacement.
    Makes no sense to spend $500k+ to reinvent this.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, but the whole point of the post is that App.net is about more than just a non-ad supported Twitter.

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      1. And his whole point was that a non-ad supported microblog platform has existed for a long time already. App.net is just another one cashing in on the idea, much like Diaspora.

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      2. I’ve read through the proposal in detail and I don’t see where this is more than a non-ad supported Twitter. It may grow that way, but today that’s not the case. And it only makes sense to leverage existing code, saving time and lots of other people’s money.

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      3. If not StatusNet, then can we compare App.net to OStatus?

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    2. I have to agree. There already is open source software that allows exactly this. I was kind of wondering why they wouldn’t leverage it.

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  3. I think a platform cannot flourish without mainstream users. And mainstream users will never pay for a open messaging system. From a Developer POV, he will think of building an App only if there are mainstream users. Otherwise it makes less sense to put in resources for building apps. We have seen this with Windows mobile and Nokia’s OVI store. Rarely any developers are interested in building Apps on these platforms. Thus OVI store had to shut down.

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    1. That’s a fair point, Anuj — thanks for the comment.

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    2. Lola J. Lee Beno Monday, August 27, 2012

      This is why I think the jury is still out. You have to give a compelling reason for mainstream users who are concerned with pinching their pennies in this economic situation where gas prices are rising, the jobless rate is rising, and people are face with being stuck in part-time job for years.

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  4. Sounds more like a platform for social media marketers. If they built in campaign management and metrics – then, that would be worth paying for.

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  5. William Mougayar Monday, August 13, 2012

    Mathew, I agree with you that App.net is a lot more than a Twitter clone. The similarities end where App.net starts. To get a glimpse into its potential already, just look at the list of 3rd party services that have mushroomed around it: https://github.com/appdotnet/api-spec/wiki/Directory-of-third-party-devs-and-apps (I signed up Engagio as a developer to work with it). But part of me sees the beginnings of a cacophony of services, some overlapping with each other, and that might leave the potential user a bit disoriented until things settle a bit more.

    But I don’t fully understand why you’ve likened it to FriendFeed. Is it going to aggregate your feeds and re-share them with anyone as a stream? That’s in essence what Engagio is doing, but just for the conversation part, i.e. where there is engagement.

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    1. I don’t know whether App.net plans to offer the same kind of federated aggregation of social feeds as FriendFeed did, William — but it certainly could if it wanted to, if it is a platform that is service-agnostic and supports all the various open protocols. I could see the alpha becoming something like that, but I am just speculating.

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      1. I would also speculate in that direction, but it’s exciting not knowing for sure!

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  6. In a way the app.net ideal is more like that of Facebook than Twitter. Facebook’s Open Graph is an attempt to get one method of social and information collection to percolate across the whole web with multiple third-parties hooking in. The difference, of course, is that Facebook holds the purse strings so all of that information collection is feeding back to one place.

    The one advantage app.net has over existing networks is that there is a fee upfront right from the beginning; we know what we are letting ourselves in for and will not be surprised further down the line – there is no way back from free!

    Twitter started out with a similar ideal and, no doubt, would originally never have seen itself on its current path but, as it began free, there was no way to monetise other than advertising without alienating a large proportion of its user base. If Twitter had started charging there would probably have been a large migration to Plurk or identi.ca but, as they too started free, they would have also faced exactly the same problem down the line once user numbers and quantity of data grew to the point where funding would be required to keep the service afloat.

    Twitter did consider the idea of charging for API usage but left it too long – app.net is getting in on the ground floor so could stand a chance if there is enough support.

    As for being a standard for data movement for the social web, I think that this may be fighting a losing battle. The major social players are now so engrained in society and are so protective of their data that interoperability is effectively out of the window from day one. Consequently, this may be a movement towards establishing a more underlying network rather than a consumer focused one.

    It is obvious that app.net is more attractive to developers than end users and this is likely to amplify itself as time goes by. App.net will, therefore, become more of a backbone (the platform) rather than an actual network. A backbone which anyone can ride and interactive with in any way they see fit and then interact with anyone else using it thanks to the open, standard API.

    Thanks to its adoption by mainstream media no one will be able to muscle in and overtake Twitter so, while it is nice to think about what could have been, we must be realistic.

    It would be interesting if the platform could become such a widespread standard of cross-talk on the web that the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are forced to hook in to it to stay relevant.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Colin — I agree that what App.net is proposing is more like Facebook’s open-graph platform. Whether it gets enough adoption to really mount some kind of competitive charge to either Facebook or Twitter remains to be seen I guess.

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  7. Lucas Laurindo Dos Santos Monday, August 13, 2012

    I think it’s the wrong way to develop a really good idea. This is something I was thinking about recently, about the need of open protocols and standards to bring the openness of the email to allow the whole internet to be a “social network”.
    I imagine sometimes what it’d be having to use the same e-mail provider or same phone carrier to communicate… and that it’s exactly what we live in today’s internet, i.e. everybody uses Facebook because everybody uses it, not because everybody has chosen it. It’s a natural behavior actually, innovations generally start closed and then become standards; but I think social networking is mature enough to start being opened.

    But did I understand it right? I don’t really think charging the final user is a reasonable way to make anything succeed in today’s world.
    I guess building a platform that’s free for personal and educational purposes, charging instead the companies interested in making money from it, more or less like MPEG, DLNA, JPEG, … (not sure about how open they are). Being free for educational and personal use is strategical, because a platform success depends on adoption and Universities, foundations, opensource communities, independent developers are great at spreading ideas and concepts.

    The best way I imagine to succeed in this scenario would be also partnering with the ones that want to take on Facebook and Twitter: their competitors.
    It’s analogous to the smartphone war: Apple created a successful but completely closed platform and built an ecosystem around it; and if any of the existing OEMs tried to create their own closed answer to it, it would fail; Nokia and RIM are the best examples. Android succeeded because it was open and because Google partnered with the ones interested to take on Apple.

    But here Google is in the opposite side and I believe it could be a real good partner to develop and promote this idea in order to take on Facebook and promote Google+.

    So I think App.net has caught a real necessity of the world, the internet has to evolve itself into a “social network”. But charging the final user seems more like a joke.

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    1. Lucas Laurindo Dos Santos Monday, August 13, 2012

      sorry if english is bad, i’m brasilian :)

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  8. I’m really glad you wrote this post Mathew. So many stories writing off app.net as simply being a paid, non-ad supported, Twitter clone. From what I’ve seen it’s aiming to be much more which I addressed on Lifestream Blog. Hopefully your post helps people realize the greater goal of this project. Regardless of whether they succeed, they should be making progress in the right direction.

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    1. Thanks, Mark.

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  9. Social Media Node Monday, August 13, 2012

    Based on that screenshot, I’m going to use the heck out of it. It looks amazing !!!

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  10. Where is it etched in stone that the “final user” will always be the one to be charged?

    Imagine if Apple comes to the conclusion after a few iterations of the soon-to-be even tighter Twitter integration into iOS that the overall use experience was diminished because of the creeping encroachment of Twitter’s commercialization effort and decides instead to make Messages/iMessage a feature instead of an app, and to make it truly platform agnostic. That switch could be flipped literally overnight by adopting the app.net framework. Compensating Dalton and his crew on a per user basis at that kind of volume would likely be a tiny tiny tiny incremental cost, assuredly far less than the $50 annual fee applicable at this early stage.

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