Twitter, App.net, and the Potential of an Open Social Platform

There’s too many social networks to keep up with today, but two largely dominate the space: Facebook and Twitter. For years, Myspace was the social force to be reckoned with, but once Facebook began rising in popularity, it quickly became relegated to being a niche network. Facebook and Twitter have managed to be a social duopoly of sorts, coexisting and growing at the same time, largely because they target different types of social behavior.

As Twitter matured, and needed to find a business model, they’ve seemed to lose the open path that brought them their initial success. Developers fear that 3rd party Twitter apps, once the bread-and-butter of Twitter, will be cut off in favor of the official apps.

That fear has led to Dalton Caldwell’s fight to build App.net, a new paid social network designed to recreate the magic of the open Twitter experience, and take it further than anyone could dream of today.

An Ode to Twitter

When Twitter first came out, most of us hardly knew what to make of it. 160 characters hardly was enough to send a sweet note to your significant other in a SMS, and then Twitter came along, expecting us to update the world publicly about what we were doing in just 140 characters. People were already complaining about Facebook being a privacy hazard, so why would we care about an 100% public network with smaller-than-SMS updates?

Then, somehow, Twitter clicked. Not immediately, but over time, Twitter became the biggest social force the internet had ever seen. Hashtags and @names popped up on TV and in advertisements. You could join and @reply a public figure, and just might end up getting a reply. I personally got my first paid writing job by @replying a site owner looking for writers, which was what got me started on my current career path.

Facebook promised to connect us to the world, but in reality, most of our Facebook friends are people we know in real life or who are connected to us by our family or work. Twitter, on the other hand, let us follow people based on interests, location, and more, all because of its open nature.

Use Twitter to see when the world’s hungry? Sure, why not!

It wasn’t the celebrity mentions, presidential campaigns, or revolutions in Egypt that made Twitter a success, though. It was the many ways developers could use its API that got most of us using it in the first place. Twitter by itself was insanely simple, too simple in many ways. But developers could make search engines, locations centric apps, live newspapers based on shared links, and more, all though the openness of Twitter. New devices were designed to tweet automatically, and new apps were built just to enable easier sharing. Google for a time used its “firehose” of tweets to tweak their realtime search, and we’ve seen so many amazing tech projects based on the simple access to so much open data.

A Day of Reckoning

For all of the magical ways Twitter made the world smaller, it still needs to make money, and money wasn’t pouring in from a freely accessible public API. Twitter decided to pay for their network with advertisements, and thus needed users to visit its website directly. It needed to control the app experience, and make sure people used their network in their sites and apps.

Trending topics, tweet cards, and hardly enough room to see individual tweets. The new Twitter.

That’s what has developers and techie users worried about Twitter. It’ll continue to be a great social network, but without ways to take Twitter’s data and make new apps and more, it’ll have lost much of its original magic and appeal. The new Tweet Cards are a nice way to see more info, but they’re so much more noise and traditional media in a former pristine sea of simply short messages. Now, Twitter has declared that Tweet cards are the future, and is using that as its reason for restricting its network. Facebook may mint money (on the stock market, at least), and Twitter still has a solid chance at the mass-market social network world, but it’ll be a mere shadow of its former exciting self for tech startups.

App.net: A User Funded Network

That’s where App.net comes in. On the surface, it’s an alternate to Twitter, one where you pay for an account for the privilege of getting 256 characters to craft your updates. But underneath, it’s a reminder of what Twitter could have been: a developer focused network that kept the API magic alive and promoted the millions of apps that could blossom from it.

A $50/user paid social network? That’s one big dream.

Perhaps that’s why it’s a hard concept to grasp. Hardly anyone is itching for a new social network, least of all one where you pay money for the privilege of wasting time. But developers, startup founders, online media pioneers, and more are flocking to App.net because of the promise of what it can be. It can be the most developer friendly online communications system that opens the doors to new apps, both for updating our colleagues on what we’re doing and perhaps for our devices to communicate with each other. And to keep up with the pulse of the world. And to use with whatever app we’d like. Perhaps you’ll build a new social network on top of it, using App.net as the plumbing for your own network. That’s all fair game in an open ecosystem that’s paid for by people who really want in, one where the service may even help pay for 3rd party apps.

When I first started using Twitter, it didn’t click until I started using 3rd party apps. After seeing the many ways a simple stream of tweets could be made so useful, it only seemed natural to use it. Twitter at its best was an ecosystem of communication, and Twitter.com was only one way to tap into that stream. App.net’s trying to build the very best social stream that everything else can tap into, taking the best of the originally open Twitter and making it even better.

The App.net Alpha

So what does App.net mean today? Last week, when I joined, it was far from certain that the project would be anything more than a manifesto and several hundred potential backers. Today, it’s far passed its funding goal, largely due to new backers jumping on to the Kickstarter-like funding campaign after the doors to the public alpha App.net were opened. When a dream turned into reality, people suddenly realized they wanted in.

The initial app is nice, a hark back to older, simpler versions of Twitter’s web app. The community is still small enough that browsing the global feed of updates almost makes sense. Features are being rapidly added; an option to delete posts was added a day after I joined. The community is still trying to figure out standard syntax, currently settling on “RP” or “>>” as App.net’s equivalent of retweet.

But if the current web app – or any app directly from App.net – is all App.net turns out to be, it’ll have failed at its mission. The current app is built to be design reference, a conceptual app to show people that the network works and is ready for use. Developers are already getting started building their own apps for the network, with 3rd party mobile web apps and iOS apps, as well as alternate desktop web apps, already in the works.

Should You Jump In?

Today, App.net’s initial funding page is still live, and you can back the project to secure your @name of choice and make sure you can get into the network as soon as possible. You’ll need to email [email protected] to ask for your alpha account to be activated right now, but they’re getting accounts added quite quickly.

Now that the project is funded, it’ll be around for the long-haul as long as it can continue to get support from the community. You can pledge money now to make sure that happens, or wait to see how it goes and if cheaper account tiers are added in the future. $50 for a social networking account might just be a record for expensive web apps, and I would be more surprised if it doesn’t drop in price drastically within the next months. Even a small payment from many users would guarantee its success and help cut down on junk, much as Pinboard.in has shown.

It just might be the most interesting experiment in social networking in recent years, and I’m excited to be along for the ride. If you join, say hi to me on App.net @maguay, and let us know your thoughts about it in the comments below.

Coming up next: a preview look at the alpha.app.net App.net client…


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