Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, co-founder of lifestyle magazine Lagom, founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, and an electronic musician.

Why you should back App.net, and now

Posted on 12 August 2012 Comments

In 45 hours, the deadline for funding App.net will close, and I would earnestly encourage anyone interested in ad-free services to back the project.

I made my own pledge on Thursday, when their chances of hitting their goal weren’t looking too great, but what a difference a few days can make: at the time of writing, they’ve raised $458,800 of their $500,000 goal. Pledging money on Thursday felt like sending a message of support; pledging money today could tip the balance. UPDATE, 12.09.2012, evening: App.net has succesfully been funded!

Before I extol the virtues of App.net (and its criticisms, of course), I want to make one thing clear: I have nothing against Twitter or Facebook, I have no plans whatsoever to leave either service, and I have a number of good friends working at both companies. My decision to back App.net — and spread the word in an attempt to help them get funded — comes down to three key personal motivations:

  • I’m interested to see how a paid-for social network could work.
  • I miss the ‘newness’ I felt when I first joined Twitter in 2007, when it was a closer community.
  • I’m intrigued by CEO Dalton Caldwell’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg.

Paying for a social network

I have no problem with Twitter and Facebook wanting to please their advertisers, because advertising is their source of income (I’m excluding investment here, because investment is not a sustainable business model) and I think all users of a free service should expect ads in some form. However, as Dalton says in his introduction video:

If we’re selling a service, our customers are our users, and our job is to make our users happy. If we have a free, ad-supported service, our customers are advertisers, and our job is to make advertisers happy.

How many times have you found yourself saying, ‘I’d happily pay for [insert feature here]’? I know I have. Implementing a paid-for ‘pro’ version of either service would make that fundamental shift of turning the user into the customer, and personally, I would love that. But I do admit that Twitter and Facebook are now at a point (and have been for a long time) where that just wouldn’t make sense for them. Their users are not a group of geeks who are happy to pay for a service; their users are the average laypeople of the planet who want everything for free. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Ad-supported services make a lot of sense at that level.

Like new again

But do you remember when you knew everyone on Twitter and they were nearly all web / tech folks? I joined back in the summer of 2007 and the service had already been going for about a year, but that was certainly still the case then. Some of my, er, ‘normal’ friends had started to hear about the service, but hardly any of them were on it — that’s what Facebook was for. And I’ve got to admit: I miss that period in time. The community felt closer.

Please don’t think I’m begrudging Twitter for getting popular and please don’t think I’m being elitist about our industry! I’m glad it’s now massive. I love following friends who are completely outside the web / tech scenes. But there is an element of nostalgia when I think of Twitter’s early days. And it’s one of the reasons I’m excited about App.net. As Christopher said yesterday:

It reminds me of the early days of Twitter, when there was a sense of optimism and excitement, and you could follow the global feed, discovering interesting people along the way.

Being new also allows them to set some clear expectations from day one, including their pledge to allow users full access to their data, should they choose to take it elsewhere. It’s something Cameron has been talking about for a long time.

Facebook acquisitions

I don’t think I need to go over the points raised in Dalton Caldwell’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, except to say that I’m suspicious of such an agressive attempt to acquire a company. I’m glad Caldwell and co. didn’t cave to Facebook’s demands.

The challenges faced by App.net

Despite the optimism shared by App.net backers, the service faces some big challenges in the immediate future. Here’s how I see it:

  • The immediate challenge is reaching the funding goal. You can help with that.
  • Apps. With such a developer-centred focus on its API, the platform is all about apps, but we need a good one and soon. Think what Twitterific or Tweetie did for Twitter. On that note, consider the recent furore about Twitter revoking API access to third-party apps. I sincerely hope they don’t go too far with this — my app of choice is Tweetbot.
  • Right now, the alpha makes the service look like a Twitter clone, although Dalton Caldwell is keen to state that this is purely a proof of concept, built in a couple of weeks, to prove that the API isn’t vaporware. So in my mind one of their initial challenges will be to prove that App.net isn’t merely a Twitter clone and is capable of being a very different social network to both Twitter and Facebook. This will be especially useful to people like me who aren’t particularly keen on wading through the API documentation on GitHub.
  • Will $500,000 cover it? It feels like a lot of money, but there’s no way to accurately predict how much a service will cost to run, so I’m interested to see how things will play out. Once out of alpha (or beta), will there be a new pricing model?
  • In the longer term, can App.net occupy a third space? I sincerely hope so, because — as I said — I can’t see myself abandoning Twitter or Facebook any time soon. What I would like to see is a different kind of social network, a different kind of audience, and a different set of rules.

So, if you’re intrigued as I am…

… go and back the project and join me in the alpha. Just like everywhere else, you can find me on there as @elliotjaystocks.

UPDATE, 12.09.2012, evening: Thanks so much to those of you who sent me a message to say that this blog post changed your opinion and made you back the project. I feel honoured to have helped and very happy to say that App.net has now been funded!

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