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App.net: Just “IHave50Dollars.com,” or an Opportunity for Rethinking Online Assumptions?

· August 23, 2012

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There have been a lot of conversations lately on the Internet about conversations on the Internet.  (Read it again.  That’s not a typo.)  There is much potential for disruption in this space, for intra-organization uses, and wide public media, as well.  (For some inspiration, check out #2 on Paul Graham’s list of “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas,” which is “Replace Email.”)  Of course, this is not a new initiative.  Even Google couldn’t compete with its own Gmail when it offered Google Wave.  (Remember Wave?  Here’s a short video introducing it.  As its developers explained in another video, they’d “tried to imagine what email would look like if it were invented today.”  Sergey Brin himself announced that Wave would “set a new benchmark for interactivity.”  But as Google’s official blog explained, despite “wins, and numerous loyal fans, Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked,” and so it was shut down about a year later.)  Still, patterns of behavior for users, developers, and investors are not set in stone (or the virtual equivalent), and there will almost certainly be more emerging services than just email and Twitter.  People have different priorities and goals for usage of these services, and another new startup is emerging, along with a broader conversation about online values.

Less than two weeks after his widely-circulated blog post “What Twitter could have been,” veteran developer Dalton Caldwell launched an “audacious proposal” in a subsequent post: a fundraising campaign for a new, ad-free real-time feed service App.net, which was fully funded last week.

Caldwell’s posts raised some interesting points about what people are willing to expect and to accept on the Internet.  He framed the debate between free/open source/noncommercial and free/ad-supported/commercial as a false choice, because they are not the only options:

The responses to my post largely fell into two camps. One group is of the belief that a non-commercial, open source, open standards federation of real-time protocols is the solution. The opposing group has pointed out that these decentralized efforts never work out, and the API-focused service I wish existed is the fevered dream of navel-gazing geeks. No, these people say, we must swallow our bitter ad-supported medicine… it’s the only way.

I think there is another option.

Putting aside my personal belief that there are more than three business models for the Internet, rather than just more than two, I do think this could be an important moment.  It is an encouraging reminder that people will pay for online services, including new disruptive ones.

Another Caldwell post in response to VC Fred Wilson’s “In Defense of Free” post (although I think Wilson’s was superior), showed that Caldwell’s views were largely developed from his experience in the digital music business, running now-shut-down startup imeem.  However, one major distinction is that digital music faces unique problems and barriers, particularly for the costs of paying for licensed music from copyright holders.  I addressed this often-prohibitive phenomenon in a prior post.

The launch of App.net also occurs in the midst of Twitter’s blog post for Developers noting some forthcoming changes to its API, that have caused a lot of controversy, but in my opinion, and as others have pointed out, it should not be that surprising.  (This satirical Twitter feed’s Tweet is closer to how I feel.  And this Tweet by Alexis Ohanian.  And this Tweet by Nick Bilton.)  Companies frequently evolve in this way, and Twitter’s post makes clear that they still want to encourage innovative uses of its API, as long as they comply with guidelines.  Anil Dash wrote up an excellent translation of the announcement to display the new and enduring positives of the shift.

Caldwell’s crowdfunding to avoid advertisements is far from revolutionary.  At the same time as his campaign, another very different site also recently succeeded in raising $500,000 to not have to run ads.  Comic site Penny Arcade successfully completed an interesting Kickstarter with a lot of creative ideas and unique valuable rewards, and ended up funding more than twice its initial goal.

Successes like this are why crowdfunding to many people is synonymous with Kickstarter.  However, there are a lot of other websites that have similar functions, and this FastCompany article lists some alternatives.  Kickstarter seems to be most widely adopted because of its usability, transparency, and efficacy.  Tim O’Reilly commented in February:  “Seems to me that Kickstarter is the most important tech company since Facebook. Maybe more important in the long run.”  People have used it in a variety of interesting ways to fund innovative projects that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

When reading Caldwell’s posts and the “Join the Movement” fundraising site, I found myself agreeing with some of his intentions, but I do think the parody site IHave50Dollars.com was a spot-on critique.  Along those lines, App.net is viewed by many as elitist.  The site has shut out communities, albeit inadvertently, who do not have fifty disposable dollars to pay for this service when there is already a free service (Twitter) that is widely adopted.  It is possible that App.net will be adopted by the developer community, for their personal and business uses.  Unlike Medium, the new blogging service I recently covered, App.net is intended to be used more for conversation, and so requires a critical mass of people to actually be posting, instead of just reading.  It will take some time to see how the alpha and beta launches go, but even the conversations around funding, not to mention “the dreaded business model question,” are important for current and future online businesses.  App.net is getting people to rethink assumptions, and that is a success in its own right.

Innovation

New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.