More than 12,000 backers support ad-free paid-for social platform App.net

14 Aug 2012

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Dalton Caldwell, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, decided just one month ago to develop a different kind of social platform that put users and developers ahead of advertisers. Today, App.net’s crowdfunding campaign has closed and the ‘Twitter do-over’ is open for business.

The real-time social service operates similarly to Twitter, but with some crucial differences. Caldwell has made it clear that the purpose of App.net is to sell a product, not its users. For this reason, membership on the site comes at a cost – US$50 per year for regular members, US$100 per year for developers.

The basic philosophy behind App.net is that if a service is good enough, users will be willing to pay for it, and if a team behind a service is wholly dedicated to keeping things running smoothly for users and not chasing advertisers, chances are that service will maintain its integrity.

An audacious proposal

It started with a blog post – ‘What Twitter could have been’ – followed by an audacious proposal. Spurred on by the encouraging reaction to his suggestion of building an ad-free, member-funded social network, Caldwell started a Kickstarter-esque campaign to get the idea off the ground. His target was to achieve ‘critical mass’ of users – 10,000 backers providing US$500,000 – and no one would be charged unless this was achieved.

This target was reached and then some. Wrapping up this morning at more than US$800,000 and with more than 12,000 backers, App.net is officially open for business and continues to receive a high volume of requests from potential members. Even one of Twitter’s most prominent early adopters, Stephen Fry, has signed up for the service.

Other well-known members include Marco Arment (creator of Instapaper), tech evangelist Robert Scoble, co-founder of Gizmodo and Engadget Peter Rojas, and Ireland’s own Patrick Collison, who co-founded Stripe, the service being used to process payments on App.net.

A fresh take on a familiar format

What these members get for their money’s worth is a simple real-time social feed where they can follow and be followed, mention other users with @username and create a fairly simple profile page with an avatar, cover photo, and short description.

Sound familiar? Because it is. Caldwell’s aim is not to reinvent social media, but rather to rework it so that it’s back in the hands of the users. Members own all of their content and can back-up, export, and delete their account when they want.

Stephen Fry on App.net

Caldwell has also created an environment that supports further development. The API draft has been published on Github there are already a number of third-party apps in development, be they mobile apps, desktop clients, or browser extensions. Caldwell has promised an open dialogue between the members and the team behind the service and everything is open for feedback and suggestions.

Putting users first

This approach of letting the service be guided by its users is nothing new, either. It was Twitter’s users that, in its early days, created retweets, hashtags and the language used in reference to the service. Only the microblogging service seems to have lost its way since then, striving harder to please its commercial partners than its loyal users.

Like Twitter, App.net’s community will develop its own unique quirks and vocabulary, and they will be able to do so freely. The team behind the service – with nine years’ experience building social services, developer platforms, mobile applications and more – will be solely dedicated to improving the service for users, not third-party advertisers, so there’ll be no chance of unwanted features foisted upon them for revenue’s sake.

App.net is still just an alpha prototype and there’s a ways to go before the service is complete. The terms of service need to be written, and Caldwell intends to post on this on Github for feedback, too. While early backers could claim their Twitter usernames (as many like to do for consistency rather than splintering their online identity), from today App.net will dole out access to the alpha service and selected usernames on a first-come, first-served basis.

Members that sign up now are essentially testing the service and helping to answer the key questions that it poses. Is an ad-free social network financially sustainable? Can it compete with Facebook and Twitter?

Caldwell sees change coming in social media and, though it may not be App.net that achieves this, it is something he forecasts nonetheless – and I’m inclined not to argue with him.

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Elaine Burke is managing editor of Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com