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So there was this idea, nice as it was, that internet was for the people, by the people, not for the behemoth corporates. That it would be a tool for us to use to strive to heights yet unseen rather than a new avenue for advertisers to show us what we suddenly “needed” to have, via targeted adverts assimilated from the information about us and sold to them.
It was a nice dream, albeit one that seemed doomed not to last.
Dalton Caldwell was the dreamer who started alternative social network App.net a year ago. It was to be the social network alternative that, for once, did not prioritize advertising revenue generation over serving developers and users (the people whose creations and involvement had helped the network gain popularity in the first place).
After being screwed over by yet again with another change by Twitter that put advertisers ahead of developers he posted a plan on his blog for a dream network he had.
Now Caldwell was not entirely naive. In fact, he graduated from Stanford University in 2003 with a BSc in Symbolic Systems and a BA in Psychology. In other words, he’s a really smart guy. Thus he knew the model needed a revenue stream.
The more common model used by the big networks such as Facebook and Twitter is advertising. As Dalton puts it, by their very nature this model aligns their incentives as a network with those that pay them, the advertisement companies who now by default become the customers, not the users who then in essence become the product being sold! So then, how do you more ethically keep the company financed while still being for the users? You make the users the customers, they pay for the network, this way the incentives are aligned and the network’s progress and future projects are in line with making the user happy.
Yeah, you read right, make the user pay for a social network.
It was of course a radical game changing idea, and it was to be called App.net. At first it was great, they were off to a phenomenal start with Kickstarter. They beat their goal funding target by more than $300 000! Dalton put down App.net’s initial funding requirements at $500 000, and this goal was reached and surpassed over a weekend. Even helped by the actor Stephen Fry and his 4+ million followers via Twitter.
— Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) August 12, 2012
In the end, Caldwell closed his self-imposed funding period having raised US$803 000 from 12 315 backers. Along with getting funding, the purpose was to test the level of interest as well as help build a collection of people who felt the same way he did, and he found them.
And so it App.net was born. It was to be rather similar to Twitter but the vision was to see what it would be if it was an API, as in built for the developer. At the time Dalton was “under no illusions” that it will become mainstream. Initially he is solicited feedback from the 3 400 or so Alpha users that had been brought aboard. Backers of the Kickstarter had been promised three levels of membership. An entry level pledge of US$50 buys into the basic ‘member’ level if you gave a bit extra, read: US$100, you got into the ‘developer’ tier (with access to the API and more) . Then there was the top level, or as they called it ‘pro’ which cost US$1 000 and provides full developer access but then you also received the added bragging rights feature of a personal meeting with Caldwell.
Now it’s a year later, what happened?
Well a few things went wrong and some went right. Firstly there was the elitist misconception which, to be frank, someone should have seen coming. Since its inception it was aimed at developers and more specifically ones who had cash lying around to pay to join, which meant that to a very large degree they would be reasonably well-off white males, the stereotypical developer. Now this happened, as luck would have it, just as tech critics were showing their teeth and throwing mud at the white male dominated landscape of the new new social networks. So that of course didn’t help.
Then there was the Twitter clone issue. See, App.net’s first product was Alpha which was a short messaging service, much like Twitter. What happened was people thought Alpha was App.net and thus mistakenly assumed it was merely a paid for copy of what they were already using. App.net didn’t make it clear, at least not enough, that Alpha was merely the first of its products and that more were coming.
See, looks rather similar doesn’t it?
Later in February of this year they launched a free tier which could only follow a maximum of 40 users. “The reason we didn’t launch with a free tier is we didn’t want to launch with huge swaths of people having the wrong idea,” Caldwell told Wired. “By keeping it so small so that mainstream people would never have heard of it, much less have an account or logged into it was a way to keep it new.” But was it too little too late? To date Caldwell’s profile on the network, which is recommended-to-follow profile upon registering, is only at 16 059 followers.
Don’t get me wrong though, while it’s not exactly looking good for the aspiring world changer, there are some kernels of hope. It has a developer program that is lively and going strong helped along predominantly by a US$30 000 award per month for the most popular apps. No wonder the developers are still rooting for the network’s success.
David Chartier, an initial backer of App.net, says: “Right now we’re still in the experimentation phase; they’re rapidly updating the API and developers are experimenting with what’s possible.” “But increasingly we’re seeing not just different kinds of apps, but more polished apps that offer a great user experience.”
So there is that. It might not be for the public at large and they might not be able to shake the internet into a more enlightened path but some good is coming out of the venture, they are making top tier apps, polished to perfection due to a rich environment of developers to help refine.
Maybe it’s not destined to be game changer but a number of them could well spawn from it.