Technologizer

App.net: Both Twitter Clone and Anti-Twitter

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Dalton Caldwell is a San Francisco entrepreneur who founded iMeem (a music-centric social network which was bought and then shuttered by MySpace) and Picplz (which lost the iPhone photo-sharing war to Instagram). Back on July 1, he published a blog post titled “What Twitter Could Have Been.” In it, he expressed dismay with multiple things about Twitter: Its advertising-based business model, its pushy attitude towards third-party developers and the poor targeting of its ads and trending topics.

A couple of weeks later, Caldwell decided to do something more ambitious than gripe: He published an “Audacious Proposal” for the creation of a service which would pretty much be Twitter the way Caldwell thought it should be.

Instead of making money from advertising, this service would charge its users. And instead of focusing on creating its own interfaces and apps, its primary purpose would be to provide feeds for interfaces and apps created by third-party developers.

Then Caldwell’s current company, App.net, created a Kickstarter-like system to solicit money to fund the idea. With the goal of raising $500,000 by August 13, it allowed backers to make pledges, starting at $50. As I write, it’s still not clear whether the company will raise the half million–it has $376,150 in pledges so far–or what it will do if it doesn’t.

App.net has already built a bare-bones alpha version of a web-based interface for its service, which is open to those who have backed the project. Having pledged $50, I’m in.

So far, App.net feels a bit like the Twitter of a few years ago — before trending topics and Sponsored Tweets and embedded photos and videos and a bunch of other features made the experience richer, but more cluttered. And just as the conversation on Twitter once centered on Twitter itself, most of the people on App.net are spending most of their time talking about App.net. They’re a smart group, and for now, at least, using App.net to discuss App.net is fun.

Oh yeah: On App.net, you can post up to 256 characters, close to double Twitter’s famous 140-character limit. I’m so used to tweeting that the extra space for my thoughts feels positively sinful.

It would be a mistake to fixate on what App.net is like in its current form. Caldwell and his team aren’t trying to build a minimalist Twitter knockoff. They want to handle the behind-the-scenes logistics of storing and distributing Tweet-style status updates, and to let third-party developers figure out what cool stuff they can do with them. The rudimentary App.net service is merely a proof of concept.

They also want to build a community of people who are willing to pay, so App.net doesn’t have to find other means of monetizing itself, such as selling ad space or collecting and selling data about its users. By doing that, they say, they can keep the focus on users rather than trying to please advertisers. And they won’t have any incentive to discourage the development of third-party interfaces.

As of right now, I don’t have the apocalyptic attitude towards Twitter’s present and future that Caldwell, and some App.net supporters, have developed. I’m still a fan and active user. I tend to block out the stuff I don’t care about, such as trending topics. (Despite being supposedly “tailored” for me, they consist almost entirely of subjects I’ve either never heard about or am actively disinterested in.) I’m also okay with the notion of Twitter being an ad-supported service.

Most important, the folks I hang out with on Twitter are an engaging bunch. It’s them that make Twitter so rewarding, not any feature Twitter has built or might build.

Even so, I find the concept of App.net appealing. If the project takes off, the $50-a-year fee will have a profound impact on the conversation that goes on using the service. It’s likely to be spam-free, and presumably low on those infamous Twitter users who like to tell the rest of the world what they’ve had for breakfast. People who pay real money for something that’s available elsewhere for free are going to take the whole affair more seriously. Or so I hope.

The App.net proposition reminds me of one of the best social networks I ever joined. It was called BIX, and I signed up in 1988 or thereabouts, for $99 a year. It was a dial-up, text-only creation, but the quality of the discussion was very, very high. If it still existed, I’d rejoin in a heartbeat. And if App.net succeeds, and has some of the same feel, I’d be thrilled.

(Incidentally, there is a still-extant BIX-like service founded by BIX expatriates, Noise Level Zero. But it seems to be only minimally active.)

Of course, it’s not a given that charging money will make App.net good: It could also prevent it from attracting enough users to ensure a critical mass of interesting chatter. We’ll see what happens. The first step is hitting the $500,000 goal by Monday night at 11:59pm. If it fails, and Caldwell scraps the experiment, I’ll always wonder what might have been.

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