app.net, I Smell a Pattern

After being pummeled into submission by 42924 tweets about app.net, I finally decided it was time to take a look at what seemed like a very popular concept. If (IF) I understand correctly, app.net is an attempt to reboot Twitter. The aim is to build a realtime social feed free from the shackles of advertising, and instead a focus on creating an experience tailored to its users and developers. Also, there seems to be a $50 cover.

Frankly, this undertaking seems ill advised, as does asking a bunch of people for $50 for a username. App.net is taking on the giants of the Internet who have worked for years to build product, developer community, etc. Having worked with Twitter’s APIs, I can say that Twitter has done a fantastic job of advocating for developers and providing them the tools and data to innovate. I can also say that I actually haven’t noticed much impact from advertising, and I consider myself a pretty heavy Twitter user. I also tend to have a hard time differentiating between Rob Delaney’s digital harassment and properly promoted tweets.

Looking back, this project doesn’t seem all that different from Diaspora. A small team aggravated with certain aspects of larger services that they love puts out an app that is viable, but is really a carbon copy of the original, with their own special twist. Diaspora and App.net both want their users to have control over privacy, data, and how much advertising is shoved in their face. Currently, Diaspora seems to be completely off the radar, having made practically no dent in addressing its original goals.

Building a product to address a flaw in someone else’s product seems to be a fools errand, particularly when the giants of real time social feeds are well ensconced. Building a competitor product also doesn’t seem like a great way to convince the Internet that advertising is bad. Also, the Internet doesn’t really need convincing that ads are bad. I’m relatively sure that based on diving click throughs, nonexistent conversion, and the mere existence of banner blindness that Internet advertising industry also knows that its days are numbered. Interestingly enough, the most fertile area of brand awareness actually seems to be around using real time social media to engage in simple, human ways. So I’m not sure how cutting brands out of the business model will help here.

What surprises me most about the existence of app.net is how blatantly it reinvents the wheel. The alpha was put out to show backers there was a real app behind the video. However, aside from proving they can convince folks that advertising control is bad, the actual app doesn’t really do anything innovative or different, at least that I can see. OK, you got me, there’s [data export|http://daltoncaldwell.com/we-did-it]. Realistically, this is an alpha, there’s virtually no data to export, so I would hardly consider this a marvel of engineering. When Diaspora came onto the scene, they had actually built something different, and innovative. Even Identi.ca attempted to differentiate themselves in functionality.

This entire project reeks of misdirected energy, and a “not built here” mentality. Granted, I’m a huge fan of building things that make you happy, it’s part of what keeps me going as a developer. Truthfully, the thing I love most about being a developer is that I can build whatever the fuck I want, whether it helps, hurts, solves a problem, or complicates stuff. However, I just can’t help but feel this entire project is a form of lashing out. It feels destructive to me to rally a group of smart people off of a platform that’s working well because of some flaws. Flaws which are really inherent challenges building business on the Internet. I feel like a more effective method of changing the environment would’ve been creating better ways to monetize without having to resort to advertising.

Aug 19th, 2012