A long time ago, in a state far, far away, I broke with personal tradition and backed something called App.net.
I’m generally not a fan of “backing” things. I’ve never taken part in any Kickstarter, for example. That’s not because of any ideological antipathy, I just feel safer paying for products directly. There’s an element of speculative partnership to that sort of deal that gives a lot of people warm fuzzies, but I’m from skeptical stock. Ever since the Darien Scheme, my people have been a tad leery of speculatin’.
So it was uncharacteristic of me to pay money to back something, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I signed up, and in return was guaranteed an account on the new service.
What was App.net? Of all the thousands that joined in that first big rush, I doubt more than a handful would have been able to explain it satisfactorily to their mates down the pub. “Sort of like Twitter but without the ads, and you pay for it,” is probably as far as most got. Despite that, App.net easily exceeded its goal of $500k raised.
So there’s a little mystery there, because the value proposition wasn’t as straightforward as buying a can of coke in a corner shop. If you don’t even really understand what you’re getting, why would you ever put money down? I can’t speak for the other 11,000 early backers, but I know why I paid my $50.
What App.net represented to me wasn’t just “Twitter without ads”. Nor was I particularly interested in the various implications of the backend service. I didn’t have any cool coding projects that were crying out for great guts. I didn’t even really understand what could be done with it.
No, when I read the post where the founder of App.net, Dalton Caldwell, introduced his Audacious Proposal, I felt strongly that this was something I had to be in on. The whole endeavor seemed revolutionary, but in a refreshingly savvy way. It wasn’t the first time that someone had thought — hey, maybe there are better ways to support social networking at scale than slapping ads on everything. But I think it came at a time when the internet was sociologically ready for it. The convergence of the monetization of Twitter and new ways of supporting putative projects meant that the timing was right.
The thing that really kicked it into gear was the groundswell of early Twitter adopters who’d seen their beloved platform turn to crap and ashes with ™’s scattered on top — who wanted to relive that early Wild West style environment. Those good old days when, man, you could really connect with people.
I felt like a train was leaving the station, and I didn’t want to miss it. This train was going somewhere excellent. I wasn’t sure where, but that wasn’t too important.
Moments like these are dime-a-dozen if you’re an entrepreneur, maybe, but it was one of the first times I’d felt I was in the right place at the right time. So I bit. I invested in hope.
Some time later
Last week I downgraded my App.net account to the free tier, as time came to renew my account. I’m not the only one. Right, left, and center, that first wave of App Netizens are having to decide: pay again to keep using it, or downgrade and lose the ability to follow more than 40 people. A lot of them — like me — are choosing the latter.
So was App.net a failure? It’d be impertinent of me to pronounce anything about its overall success (or lack of) but I pondered this for a while as I slowly clicked the requisite buttons to downgrade my account and made my apologies to all those I’d be automatically unfollowing. Was it a success for me, personally? Did I get my money’s worth?
It became clear, pretty quickly, that App.net wasn’t exactly going to be the ground-breaking hotbed for internet revolution that my primal self had convinced me it would be. When 95% of the conversation was still about the medium in which it was being expressed, weeks after I joined, I faded into the shadows and shuffled back to Twitter. Maybe I’ll check back, I thought, to see what it turns into.
I returned, eventually, drawn by idle curiosity. I made a stab at it. I enjoyed a number of interesting conversations. But it wasn’t quite enough. The problem was that everyone on App.net that I struck up a friendship with was already on Twitter.
App.net was, for me, the equivalent of going to Best Buy to try out a laptop, then going home and buying it on Amazon. Except instead of laptops, I was making relationships, and instead of buying them on Amazon, I was following them on Twitter. There wasn’t really much more to it than that. No big revelations, no practical applications.
So it was worth it, I guess, because you can’t really put a price on friendship. But I’m getting off this train — I’ve been on it for a while and I’m still not sure where it’s going.
This is me waving a handkerchief on the platform.
Published on March 24th, 2014