App.Net: Taking Stock

App.Net: Taking Stock

 

This post marks my 24,000th post on App.Net.

That puts me, in the local network argot, in the Carat Club 💎 (24K posts) and gives me the pleasure of entering a club whose name I devised. A while ago some of us decided to come up with Post Count Achievements as a light-hearted way of keeping track of our own active participation. The naming process quickly got out of hand but it was a lot of fun. Unbelievably, one of us made it to the Tower of Babble club (100K posts) recently!

The main purpose these ‘clubs’ serve for me is to trigger some reflection when I hit another of these milestones. Where have I arrived? Where did I come from and has the journey been worth it?

Today, I wanted to share a bit about how I came to App.Net, how I feel things are currently going, and to end with a retrospective of some of the moments and movements I loved in the community in the past year and a half. That last section will be rather community-biased so give up on this post whenever you feel you’ve read enough.

Where It Began

I backed App.Net on the 7th of August, 2012 as part of its crowd-funding drive and am its 3,148th member. Some quick math tells me that it has been 578 days since I joined up, which puts me at an average of 41.5 posts a day.

Wow. That’s better mileage than I got on Twitter, where as of this writing I’m at 12,131 tweets,
having joined up in January of 2009.

That’s a lot of social media posting. I will demur from mentioning Facebook (which is relatively barren) and my few excursions into Yammer and LinkedIn.

I like conversing online. It’s fun reaching out to people from different walks of life with different experiences and different perspectives who live in parts of the world I may never see. Social media today is just a modern iteration of ideas that have been around since the inception of digital networking: BBSes, IRC, etc. It has grown in scope and utility just as the internet itself has done, reaching ever-further into society and outlying geographic locations to bring near-instantaneous communication to the world. And yet, it’s difficult to settle on a social media platform. Everyone has different needs and preferences and as a result we are forced to spread ourselves out over multiple platforms in order to communicate with our friends.

In 2012, Twitter announced version 1.1 of its API that indicated a shift in direction to how the company would be positioning itself. Developers and pundits were in an uproar and articles like this quickly appeared proclaiming the days of free innovation on Twitter were dead.

After an earlier post on the Twitter blog at the end of June 2012, Dalton Caldwell, the founder of App.Net, wrote a perceptive blog posted titled What Twitter Could Have Been. In it, he highlighted the divide that had grown at Twitter between those who wanted the company to move in the direction of a realtime cloud-based API provider and those who wanted to go in the ad-based marketing direction. His conclusion was that the latter group had won.

He soon followed up with the post that launched App.Net: An Audacious Proposal.

This received a lot of traction in the tech media and my attention was drawn to the project by John Gruber of Daring Fireball fame. At the time, I was growing disenchanted with Twitter for the direction it was moving in. My reason for being active there was precisely the freedom that developers had to come up with interesting new ways of interacting with Twitter and the fact that the company did not seem interested in making a profit over the backs of its users.

I am not a developer, but I am a fan of their work and a platform that started to squeeze them out quickly lost my respect.

If you read Dalton’s posts, he never mentions microblogging in them. His plans for App.Net were always bigger and more far-ranging but he could not have timed the launching of his service better. The first ‘App’ that ran on App.Net was simply called Alpha, and it was a Twitter-like microblogging site. Disgruntled developers and users (like me) who were already looking for an alternative to Twitter, quickly signed up and backed the project in the hopes of being part of a greater, more user-centric vision.

App.Net would give control of their data to its users. It would have a robust API that allowed developers to innovate. And they had big plans to expand the API to bring all sorts of new functionality to the experience. And, in order to avoid the issues of an ad-based business model, App.Net would be a paid service.

Some Personal Thoughts on App.Net

The idea behind App.Net is very apropos for its time. I will not profess to fully understand the ideas or plans that its founders and developers have, but from what they have said and shown us over the past months there is a huge amount of potential in the service.

After having set up the microblogging site Alpha and getting it very successfully crowd-funded, App.Net went on to add new features at a rapid pace. I list the blog announcements here to give you an indication and feel of the types and speed of development that was realized:

As you can see, a lot has happened in the past 578 days. And I haven’t even mentioned all the wonderful apps on multiple platforms built by very talented developers. There are chat room type apps like Patter, and photo/video apps like Climber and Photo-App, journalling apps like Ohai and Sunlit, and many microblogging clients (Felix, Chimp, Riposte, Robin, etc.) and messaging apps (Felix, Whisper, etc.).

App.Net has come a long way since its initial funding and I must give kudos to Dalton Caldwell and his dedicated team for all the hard work and passion they’ve put into this project.

Looking at everything that has happened, even if the community weren’t so great, I’d be happy to resubscribe to App.Net for another year. They’ve delivered and then some on the promises they made.

And yet, despite all this diversity, I see some troubling trends. For me, being primarily a user of the service, there are few things I would like to take issue with.

Microblogging vs Other Applications

Many developers have been trying to come up with new angles on what they can do with the App.Net API. Thanks to the posting and messaging APIs and the powerful File API a lot of things are possible. You can have a photo app that stores all its photos on a user’s sizeable 10GB storage (the files remain fully under the user’s control) and add a social component to them via the App.Net APIs. Or you can create a blogging service hosted fully on App.Net .

A user retains control over their own posts and files and can delete them at will. This is another great feature of App.Net, freeing us from all the privacy and content infringement issues that are rife in other social media environments.

The issue, however, has been that the original microblogging application has still been the most successful app implementation of the App.Net API. I will likely get a lot of counter-arguments on this point, the PourOver app has been pulling a lot of syndication feeds to the platform and it may well be possible that more posts are being generated from such automated sources than are from microblogging users at this stage. Despite my Post Count Achievement banter at the top of this post, however, I do not consider the number of posts to be a metric of much interest. For me, it’s all about added value.

The value-add for microblogging is pretty clear. The last section of this blog post will be devoted to some of the good times and initiatives I’ve run into on the site and they have all been the result of the human networks I’ve built up on Alpha. Applications like PourOver and Broadcast have little draw for me as they are in direct competition with very established functions available elsewhere.

The challenge for App.Net is, and remains, drawing more users to it. There is no shortage of creativity from the side of developers, but making the platform sustainable will require enough paying users to make it viable both for App.Net and the developers building applications on the platform.

Either that, or they are going to need to get outside funding as they have already done once. What happens then to the idea of “pay money to get an ad-free feed from a company where the product is something you pay for, not, well, you”?

Users and the Free Tier

As I hope I’ve made clear, in my opinion, the users are still the central element of App.Net. Dalton often states that the goal of App.Net is to create an infrastructure, the pipes as it were, on top of which applications can be built. The fact that App.Net started out as a paid service meant that users were essentially bankrolling the creation of this infrastructure. So what are they getting back for it?

The argument runs that more features and services on the App.Net API means added value for users. And certainly some developments like the messaging API and the File API have provided us with some excellent features. But do I see the File API as a replacement for Dropbox or Google Drive? Or is messaging a replacement for WhatsApp/Google Chat/Telegram? Not yet. Not until it gains much wider adoption.

And there’s the rub. Most people on the internet are unaccustomed to paying for even excellent services. If you tell them you know of a great service but they have to pay $3 a month for it, they will look at you skeptically and immediately ask why they would give up a free alternative. They are not concerned with issues of privacy and data control.

To address this issue (and perhaps other strategic goals of which I am unaware), App.Net introduced the Free Tier. Users could get a free account with limited features to access App.Net. This also simplifies the position of developers building a service on App.Net as they no longer need to find an argument for why users for their apps need to get an extra subscription to a relatively unknown service.

It’s a great move tactically, but it puts pressure on paying users. How strong is the case for having a paid user account on App.Net when you can get most of the features for free? The initial flood of support for the project came from tech geeks and early adopters who loved the potential of App.Net. The idea that it could be possible to put down a competitor for established social media platforms that actually respected the user at its core. Now, however, as yearly memberships come up for renewal, each user with a paid account is evaluating whether or not to continue paying, or whether the use case is strongest to just drop down to the free tier.

For me, renewing is a no-brainer, simply because I cannot fit all the wonderful people I’ve met on the service into the free tier cap of having only 40 people I can follow. But this has little to do with the technical possibilities App.Net offers, it has everything to do with the community that has grown around the very first application: Alpha.

A Hop and a Skip Down Memory Lane

So what’s it like on Alpha?

Starting up on a new social media platform is never easy. If a lot of your friends from another platform join you, it can be simpler, but starting cold turkey can be a daunting challenge. Whom do you talk to or follow? What are the conventions?

Luckily, I’m a gregarious person by nature, and not shy and so I just started insinuating myself into conversations on the network. Fortunately, a lot of people on the network were the same way and welcomed interaction from complete strangers.

In that first year, I was involved in a lot of initiatives to get the community up and running. Most of the ideas were not mine, although some were, and I want to take a moment here to put them in the spotlight. For people who are newer to (or not familiar with) App.Net, it should hopefully be an eye-opener to the possibilities of a tightly-knit social community. For those who were there with me, it should provide a few chuckles.

I may mention various people by name, but let me stress from the outset that it’s going to be impossible to mention everyone who’s made my stay on App.Net so wonderful, so let me start by thanking everyone on App.Net who actively participates in the conversations for making it such a great place to hang out and chat. We need more of you.

So let’s see, I’ll use some hashtags to help group some fun things to highlight on the microblogging site:

  • #adngift: A wonderful initiative started up by the incomparable king and queen of App.Net: @ronnie & @shawna. It’s amazing how generous people are willing to be to complete strangers.
  • #adnsecretsanta: In a similar vein, a great initiative that only took off the first year of the service. Sadly it was too much effort for the organizer to give it another go.
  • The League of Easily Distracted Gentlemen: A podcast that needs to be heard to be believed! I will claim some credit for forming this motley crue but had I known that each of the gentlemen involved would be more talented than me, I might have reconsidered! Getting @cunarders@charlesg & @karim in one Google Hangouts room is like trying to herd drunken cats through a room full of hyperactive 5 year olds, though. This is why it’s a podcast that has to make up for its infrequent episodes with enormous episode lengths. No, it’s not because we don’t know how to edit. Ok, maybe a little.
  • #thememonday: A crazy little event on the second Monday of every month in which we choose a profile theme and get creative! Set up by my good friend @berklee, Theme Monday's avatar choices can be viewed at Thememonday.com!
  • #mndp: Monday Night Dance Party! An event I have managed to miss for the history of its existence (a timezone issue) but that I hear is quite the party. Started up by @jdscolam
  • #adnbookclub: Started by @shawnthroop, a talented ballet dancer based in Germany, I had a lot of fun at the outset, even briefly involving myself in the BookBytes podcast set up by Shawn and @sneagan. Unfortunately, I found I was woefully unequipped to keep up with the reading pace of the club and ended up dropping out.
  • #adncomicsclub: An intiative started up by @justine and that has been run very successfully. It’s a great way to get introduced to new comics and graphic novels.
  • #adnafterdark: A dubious hashtag devoted to comical, if off-color, posts on the network. I swear I had nothing to do with introducing it, it was all@jacarandachick!
  • #gmquote and #gnquote: A little something that I started on a whim one day and have kept up for a fair percentage of those 578 days, a quote in the morning and one in the evening.
  • #new2adn and #new2adntip: Hashtags I started up when the free tier started pulling in a lot of new users. Until then, I and many of the other experienced ADN members had been trying to greet everyone personally and trying to draw them into the network. As numbers started making that impossible this seemed to provide some help.
  • #adnthursdaydrama: An attempt at a long running collaborative story-telling project. Unfortunately, we have not managed to continue it. A hoot, though!
  • #houseofk and #cubquote: Entertaining conversations I have with my better half @claudette and our lovely daughter, referred to here as Little Miss S.

There’s a lot more going on, but it’s great to see the level of participation in all these activities. We’ve lost some great App.Net members too, people who left for various reasons, but I’m happy to have met them here and, in most cases, I’ve managed to stay in touch with them.

Thanks for the great times, everyone, and I hope there’ll be many more to come!

Aidan Kulkarni

Aidan Kulkarni

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