Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of Twitter’s new restrictions on third-party developers. If so, you’re probably also aware of other actions Twitter has been taking which put the users on the losing end, such as shutting down the “find my friends” API for Instagram and Tumblr. Consequently, technologically-inclined users have been increasingly vocal about their disapproval of the microblogging company.
As a general result of this, App.net (ADN) was formed. Led by Dalton Caldwell, ADN offers something Twitter isn’t: to let the user be the customer, not the product. This is based on a simple principle: users and developers pay ADN to use the service, and ADN does its best to serve their interests, not those of advertisers. I believed in the cause and contributed $50 to the Kickstarter-esque project early on.
App.net’s funding was successful. It’s taken weeks of using it before I’ve really started to follow my Timeline, all thanks to Netbot’s defibrillate shock that revitalized ADN. However, I’m started to have second thoughts as to whether the service is a good idea after all.
And just in time, another option came along: Tent.io.
The Importance of Decentralization
Twitter seems to have ticked off more than a few people in the geek community. In addition to the crew working on App.net, some developers started working on Tent.io, a protocol for a social network similar to Twitter, but also very different from it. The key differentiator is Tent’s decentralized approach, which goes in stark contrast with Twitter’s — and App.net’s, for that matter — purely centralized modus operandi. In essence, instead of one entity having control over a medium like Twitter, a standard is made, allowing any person or company to implement the medium, which remains interoperable.
The classic example of a decentralized medium is email. Whether you use Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo, you can send an email to anyone else using email, regardless of the provider they use. Moreover, if Gmail decided to shut down, it’s relatively easy to set up camp somewhere else. It should also be easy to transfer emails as well, but services tend to limit this as a method of increasing switching costs. If transferability is important for you, you can just choose your email provider accordingly, or set up your own email server in the extreme case.
Another great example is a website with your own domain. As long as you own your domain name, you can move your site to another hosted service, or host your own site directly. WordPress makes this especially easy, much in the same way Tent.io works. You can use the hosted WordPress.com to run your site, or you can run WordPress software on your own server or hosting account. As long as you own your domain, your visitors will still reach your site, even after the change.
This concept remains the same with Tent. A company can set up a Tent server and offer the service for free by showing ads (like most free email providers). On the other hand, an individual can set up their own server. In all cases, the user can easily move from one provider to another.
Despite my initial excitement and enthusiasm for ADN, I’m increasingly leaning towards Tent.io as being the better alternative for the future. For starters, Tent is more flexible than ADN, allowing frugal users to use free servers (with or without ads) and demanding geeks to run their own or pay for one without ads. This accommodation is especially crucial for a social network, since it allows for a much greater number of users. ADN’s fate as a social network is severely limited to a small fraction of users conscious of the value of a service and willing to pay for such a service. Growth won’t go past a certain point, give or take. It’s an interesting approach for a social network, and if it truly took off, it could make social networking work much more like email than ever before.
It should be noted that Tent is definitely not ready for primetime in its current form. Paul Haddad, the developer behind Tweetbot and Netbot, inspected Tent’s API and described it as incomplete as of version 0.1. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since it’s being built using an open-source approach, limited by the number of contributors. In contrast, ADN’s team is entirely focused (and paid) to work on its service.
There is, however, already a freemium Tent.io service, Tent.is, that’s already become a popular place to signup if you’re eager to try out the service. It could easily be what WordPress.com is to the WordPress ecosystem, and even though it’s rough around the edges, it’s promising.
I entertain the idea that Tent can become Email 2.0. Email hasn’t evolved much in decades, despite our use of it pushing it to its limits. Many services are born nowadays just to solve issues we’re having with email, but most of them are a third-party relative to the provider we use and the experience is clunky at best. Imagine once Tent is fully mature and allows services to plug into its API, which is not controlled by a profit-driven entity.
In fact, App.net’s founder, Dalton Caldwell, discussed how Twitter could have become exactly that, but didn’t for economic reasons. He resolved this concern by asking money from ADN’s users and developers. Despite that, App.net’s Twitter-like centralized approach means that the service can shut down any day and nothing could be said. That notion makes me uncomfortable, especially since there’s money involved. I’m not saying it will happen, and I honestly doubt it will, but the remaining possibility means the problem isn’t completely solved.
This being said, I’m curious what will happen when the time will come for users to renew their ADN subscription. Will they have enjoyed their experience enough to justify spending another $36 (or $5/month)? By then, will Tent be a mature protocol, offering a more valuable and accommodating service than App.net? Time will tell, but I’m betting on Tent.io winning in the end.