Dalton Caldwell, known for creating the popular music-sharing site Imeem, successfully crowdfunded his new venture App.net four months ago. The ‘paid Twitter clone’ as it’s often called is, according to Caldwell, “an honest-to-goodness experiment.”
So after all the hype, how is App.net actually faring? Let’s find out.
While users and developers were getting frustrated at the ever-changing rules and monetization attempts of major social networks like Facebook and Twitter, Caldwell saw an opportunity to build a social network that made the users and developers the customers, not the product. Unlike platforms that rely on advertising for revenue, App.net charges an up-front fee for users to join.
Four months after the project was funded and alpha users began joining the network, buzz has died down around the web as Caldwell’s team knuckles down to add much-needed features. As far as app development goes, however, Caldwell feels that his platform has already achieved parity with Twitter.
The user community
Although App.net is heavily focused on third-party developers as a hail-back to the early days of Twitter, which was pushed ahead as a result of developers jumping on board, users are always going to outweigh developers. Even with a modest 30,000 users, the number of people who have signed up for the $100/year developer account are no doubt in the minority.
Non-developer users, on the other hand, are the group that really make up the community, drive engagement customs and rules of interaction, and push the platform forward by the way they choose to use it. The way users feel about the network so far and what their experience is like is just as important, if not more so, than the developers’ stance.
From interviews I conducted with a variety of users for this piece, the majority were in strong agreement with the company’s core values, which include promises to support third-party developers and to keep the service ad-free forever, as well as a sustainable business model and the ability for users to export their content any time. The draw of having no spam or advertising and the stability of the platform is strong enough to encourage users to sign up for paid accounts and enjoy the feeling of being the customer, rather than a product to be sold.
The community itself was overwhelmingly the most common benefit brought up by interviewees—both users and developers alike.
While several users, including Editor-in-Chief of MacStories, Federico Viticci, are more inclined to use Twitter because the larger user base provides more content, the tight-knit community of early adopters on App.net is a big drawcard for many. Jonathan Scolamiero hailed the platform’s current community as being “just spectacular,” and developer Ryan Tharp said that although the user base is small, “…this has turned out to be an advantage here. It’s helped form a sense of community.”
For some, App.net and Twitter have different but equally important purposes. Developer Brett Terpstra said he used App.net as well as Twitter, but for different reasons:
“Basically, ADN is my high-brow tech network, with good conversations on the side…I love the higher character limit, and the pay-gate makes the social conversation quality better in general.”
Writer, talker and productivityist Mike Vardy pointed out the benefits of engaging in conversations on such a nascent platform:
”I go to App.net to engage in conversations that don’t get buried like they do on Twitter. I like the community, and that is growing every day… The level of discourse is what I like the most. There’s more of an intimacy on App.net now.”
But noted that there are downsides, as well:
”Conversations can be hard to follow as they start to splinter into other conversations…That’s my biggest peeve.”
When it comes to joining the community as a newcomer, some users found it easy to get started. Both developers Ryan Tharp and Josh Sharp felt that meeting new people was easy, and Sharp noted that the community as a whole is generally “fairly welcoming and eager to chat.”
Dan, on the other hand, who is self-professed as “The most prolific poster in ADN history,” believes the integration of new users is a major problem for the network:
”It really seems like it’s impossible, or challenging at least, to make friends here in the beginning unless you know someone influential.”
For many, the lack of friends from other platforms who have joined is a pain point, which they hope to see resolved as the platform adds new features and innovation helps it to appeal to a wider user base.
The app developers
The company clearly supports developers, with a strong emphasis on the service’s App Directory, currently sporting over 85 offerings for iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux, Web and more. The App.net blog also prominently supports developers with regular round-ups featuring new apps in the directory, and interviews with app developers.
With such a heavy emphasis on third-party developers, the apps built on top of the platform are clearly meant to be a big selling point. The developers working on App.net products need to be the driving force of innovation for the platform for it to survive, and as Caldwell has said, developers have the incentive to get people onto the platform, as that increases their personal revenue.
As Ryan Tharp pointed out, there are many benefits that come from working with a developer-focused platform:
”One of the great things about App.net is most of its future is in developers’ hands. Being a developer, some of that future is in my hands. And then I think about the caliber of the other developers working on App.net, and I get even more excited… Developers can build what they want and get an instant user base.“
Already some of the big players in the social media space have jumped on board, including Buffer and IFTTT. Tapbots, the development team known for popular Twitter client Tweetbot has even created a version of the same app for App.net, called Netbot. Other popular clients including Wedge and Felix offer a polished user experience, albeit with limited features available. So far, it seems that the majority of third-party development is going into Twitter-style clones for the service as developers work to understand and implement all of the basic features available in the API.
Both user Jon Scolamiero and developer Josh Sharp mentioned the lack of features available currently, including streaming posts and private messages, although the latter has just been released. Regardless of the features that are and aren’t available yet, the innovation of third-party developers so far seems to be slow, as Sharp noted:
“Very few people are actually being imaginative, there’s just a rush to create Twitter-clone-clients…by and large people are just recreating the Twitter experience, and I think that’s doomed to fail”
Ryan Tharp, who developed ADN chat client ChatView, also bemoaned the lack of innovation in third-party development so far:
”People have a hard time understanding what [App.net] is. People think it’s just a Twitter-clone because the first applications available were ports of already existing Twitter clients.”
This is clear in the release of apps like Netbot, which is essentially just a stripped-down version of Tweetbot at this stage. According to App.net analytics tool Appnetizens, however, Netbot is clearly the most popular third-party client so far, hitting roughly double the unique users per day of the next closest client, App.net’s own web-based Alpha.
Of the ten most-used third-party apps available currently, just two require a purchase to download: Netbot and Felix. And, like these two, another six of the top ten are Twitter-clone-style apps.
The number of unique users posting to the platform jumped up significantly when Netbot was released on October 3rd, but the level of activity has continued to drop since, leveling out in early November with around 2500 unique users per day. Considering that there are close to 30,000 users signed up, the number of users who are active on the platform is small.
Even the total number of users signing up is dragging now that the buzz has died down. During August as the funding campaign was picking up steam, new user signups per day got to almost 5000 at one point. In the past few weeks, however, new user signups have waned as low as fifteen on some days.
Josh Sharp went on to say that there are some interesting experiments arising which include App.net-powered chat client Patter, publishing platform LongPosts and community platform, QuickCommunities. Although limited at this stage, innovative projects like these point in the direction of a strong future for App.net that doesn’t look like a Twitter copycat. As developer Nitin Khanna said:
”What’s bad is that people still compare it to Twitter. [App.net] was and will be a lot more. It’s an infrastructure company where a lot more than just a Twitter-clone is going to be made.”
The App.net team is clearly committed to encouraging third-party developers to imagine new and exciting possibilities to build on top of the platform. The network even has a Developer Incentive Program in place to financially reward developers based on the use and enjoyment of their apps by the App.net community.
”I’m not giving out my figures, but most people would soil their trousers if they saw the current cost:payoff ratio for a from-scratch iOS [App.net] client. And not in envy.”
At this early stage, it seems that community and high-quality interaction in an ad-free, spam-free environment are the winning ingredients for the current user base. Judging by the barely-there growth-rate and the lack of features and innovation at this stage, however, if the network continues in this vein, it’s not going to last long.
What’s needed now is impressive innovation to prove that App.net is more than just a Twitter-clone. The platform was always intended to be much more, but the onus is falling on third-party developers to make that happen.
User Alicia Kan pointed out the game of chicken that the company and its dev community are playing right now, in regards to growing the community:
“The big question is, who is responsible for growing this community? ADN says it’s up to the developers. Some developers say it’s ADN’s responsibility. There are pros and cons for each side.”
Another user, Mina Abadir, replied:
“That’s what I was saying in my first post. I see it’s ADN responsibility. At least till they get a consistent base that would make developing and maintaining an app worth the effort.”
For the most part the early adopter crowd seems to agree on their reasons for joining—as Joshua Nadas said, “Ultimately, I am here because I believe in the core values, and I really like the idea of a social network that is not based on ads.”
But it’s clear that an ad-free Twitter-clone is not worth the asking price. App.net has a huge challenge over the next six months to live up to the lofty-but-noble promises of its founder, Dalton Caldwell.
As user Scott Spencer said:
“It’s a niche network right now. If nothing changes, that’s all it will ever be.”