App.net will change Twitter, Facebook and other social networks like Google Fiber will change ISPs

Blackbirds at Dusk, Asheville, North Carolina
Fly away, birdy. You are free! Free! Well, you are $3 a month!moonjazz / Foter

Summary: App.net’s subscription service will force social networks like Twitter and Facebook to offer paid, ad-free and no-track versions of their social networks, much like Google Fiber, through product innovation and policy cleverness, will compel ISPs to improve their offerings.

I just dropped $36 to join App.net for a year. The service is like Twitter, but without intrusive/clever/dumb/brilliant ads that have nothing to do with why I joined Twitter or any other social network in the first place. On the sign-up page for the service, the founder Dalton Caldwell puts App.net’s value proposition very clearly in a number of ways:

  • “We will never sell your personal data, content, feed, interests, clicks, or anything else to advertisers.”
  • “Our financial incentives are entirely tied to successfully delivering a service you can depend on, not on holding our ecosystem hostage.”
  • “Rather than waste most of our engineering time coming up with new and exciting ways to sell your personal data to advertisers, 100% of our engineering and product team is focused on building the most innovative and reliable service we can.”
  • “App.net will always have a clear business model. We know that depending on services that could go away or desperately squeeze users for more and more money is a toxic cycle.”

I’m thinking of App.net like another cell phone. But a texty, URL-ey, semi-public one. Right.

Anyway, for $3 a month, it’s pretty cheap. What do I get? That’s not clear. Like any social Web tool, its ultimate value is not in its technical capabilities (because those can be easily replicated and repackaged, as is demonstrated by the steady life/death of various social networks), it is the people who use the service.

In other words, Twitter/Facebook is just simple fun until everybody you know joins. It then becomes very useful, and, at some point, it becomes necessary. “Find me on Facebook,” people start saying. You join, or you don’t play. Locked in. Twitter and Facebook are enjoying this phenomenon, and tech observers might be inclined to dismiss App.net on the grounds that it will never get the user numbers that the two giants have.

Who cares?

For one, I didn’t join App.net to replicate my experience on Twitter. I joined it mostly out of curiosity about what kind of network will develop when members pay to join. Will there be more thoughtfulness? Will people choose their network more carefully? Will the experience be better, if narrower? Will that 256-character limit to the messages allow more useful nuance?

Secondly, App.net, if even modestly successful (from a public relations or business standpoint), will at least start or revive important conversations inside the headquarters of Twitter and Facebook. Conversations that go something like: “Should we offer a paid version of our service? Should we charge people in exchange for stopping selling their information? Make a pro version for consumers like App.net?”

These are the same types of conversations I imagine ISPs started having when Google Fiber got underway. The details are quite different, but the premise I’m locking into is the same: offer a product that forces product innovation (or not).

Social networks aren’t quite as essential as telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, but they’re getting there. App.net’s 20,000 users demonstrate social networks are something that (some) people are willing to pay for. Twitter and Facebook have a chance to get ahead of this curve. Can they make a billions-of-dollars business out of it? Doubtful, but that shouldn’t be the measure of success. The question is how many people can they prevent from going to App.net.

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