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As is so common on the Internet, App.net was born out of frustration with the status quo.
Twitter had just announced that it was limiting access to its API (learn more about API). The hundreds of third-party applications built around the popular micro-blogging website were soon to be consigned to the scrapheap, largely because of limited access to the Twitter servers.
Furthermore, the dissatisfaction over how Twitter was monetizing the service was growing and growing. You know that old adage, “if you’re not paying for a product, you are the product”? It turns out that people don’t especially enjoy being products.
One person was more dissatisfied than others. Dalton Caldwell announced his audacious proposal to raptured applause from the Hacker News community. He was going to build a better Twitter. One $500,000 Kickstarter project later and App.net was born.
App Dot What?
App.net feels a lot like Twitter.
Using the site should feel very familiar to anyone who has used the micro-blogging mammoth, as the core of the site’s functionality depends upon people creating status updates. These can be up to 256 characters in length and, when posted, appear in the timelines of anyone who follows you. You can respond to updates and share them in a manner that resembles retweeting. There’s a private messaging feature too. Bizarrely, it’s called Omega.
It goes without saying that Twitter has a significantly larger user base than App.net. However, App.net turned this disadvantage into a strength, allowing you to view the entire activity of the site in one entire feed. As a result, it’s easy to find interesting characters who are active in the community.
So far, so familiar. Things start to get interesting (and only just) when we look at how App.net goes about engaging with their developer community.
Historically, Twitter has been very bad at this. It’s no surprise, given that it’s hard to monetize third-party applications based around a social network. As a result, Twitter has made it almost impossible to use the Twitter API to create popular, custom Twitter applications.
App.net has taken a slightly different approach. When signing up for the site, you can fork out $100 for a specific pricing tier that’s intended for developers. This gives you unlimited access to the API for a year.
It also gives you access to the App.net developer incentive program. This is similar to what RIM (Blackberry) did when trying to build a developer community around the Blackberry 10 operating system, and offers financial incentives to applications using the App.net platform. These work out to be $10,000 per month, which is a pretty significant chunk of cash.
Even if you still don’t partake in the developer incentive program, you can still make money from your applications which use the App.net platform. It is totally fine to monetize your code by using adverts, micropayments or simply selling your applications. This has resulted in a healthy amount of applications for the App.net platform.
Another significant difference between App.net and Twitter is the business model. While Twitter, like most social networks, relies on ads and user information for their revenue, App.net doesn’t sell ads. It sells its own service.
How Much Does It Cost?
You’re not going to find adverts on App.net. Nor will you find a ‘sponsored post’ sneaking its way into your timeline. No, this site uses a subscription-based freemium pricing model.
Cheapskates can follow up to 40 users, as well as store up to 500mb of files and photos. However, for $5 per month, or a yearly fee of $36, you can follow unlimited users and store up to 10GBs of files and photos. Furthermore, paid members can invite their friends to join App.net to increase their storage capacity.
The 10GBs file storage is curious. It’s marketed as file storage, but there’s no obvious way to share files that aren’t photos from the web interface. However, applications using the App.net API can use this storage to store other files. Think of App.net as a slightly more convoluted Twitter-cum-Dropbox sort of thing.
As previously mentioned, the developer community can fork out $100 for a specific software-developer friendly account. This includes all of the aforementioned features, as well as access to the App.net API, membership in the developer incentive program and two of the standard members accounts at a reduced rate.
Should You Join App.net?
It’s fair to say that App.net lacks the general appeal of Twitter and Facebook. Simply put, the community isn’t there. Few people registered on App.net seem to be active, with most conversations happening between a handful of die-hard users. This is probably exacerbated by the reality of App.net users being an insular lot. I’ve found it difficult to actually approach strangers as I would on Twitter. It mostly felt as a provincial group for friends rather than a social network.
That’s not a problem, as App.net isn’t trying to compete with Twitter or Facebook. Not really. The target demographic is one of technically-minded individuals who wish to have their privacy rights respected. In this respect, App.net is a massive success, and this comes from the restraint App.net has shown when it comes to not engaging with advertising partners and not selling user data. They’ve been able to do this by not being dependent upon an advertising based revenue model.
However, there’s one elephant in the room we need to address. Hardly anyone is using App.net right now. There’s still a die-hard contingency of people who use the site on a daily basis, regularly posting photos and status updates, but there’s just the lack of critical mass that Twitter has. Even Stephen Fry — who signed up with App.net first launched — has since closed his account.
And when you sign up for Twitter, it’s not as if you need to convince your friends to sign up for a new, unknown social network. They’re probably already there. The same isn’t true for App.net.
Despite everything, App.net remains a polished alternative to Twitter, and if you can convince your friends to move to a more privacy-oriented social network, you’ll find that App.net won’t disappoint.
I like what App.net is doing. The concept behind it is an interesting one, and I applaud them for launching a free social network that respects your privacy. That said, they still desperately need to attract users.