Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

As I’ve mentioned briefly in the past, I was an early backer of app.net, a for-pay social networking site. On the heels of their decision to offer a by-invitation free tier, I figured I would talk a bit about my experience there, and why I’m growing more and more fond of it over time.

A different paradigm

In practice, the biggest failings of Facebook and Twitter come from the simple fact that users are product to be delivered, rather than clients. Facebook’s privacy snafus (discussed extensively in my post about leaving Facebook) have primarily stemmed from their desire to make your data open to more marketers and advertisers. Twitter’s recent API changes and 3rd-party-client killing are largely to ensure that advertisers’ (annoying) messages are viewed as they want, when they want you to see them. In short, Facebook and Twitter make their money by selling me to marketers and advertisers, and by presenting me with things I don’t want to see.

This is why app.net is revolutionary and different. The initial idea behind the service was that a social network supported by its users would be able to put 100% of its efforts towards the users, rather than to advertisers, data miners, or marketers. They promised that you would own all your data, that the API would be open, and that the terms would be open to public comment. This is a brilliant idea, and is what led me to back the service immediately, even at the relatively steep $50/year (now down to $36/year).

Implementing the idea

App.net was backed, and opened its doors in August 2012. At first, they simply had alpha, a 256-character microblogging service. Then they launched annotations, a behind-the-scenes markup which allowed app.net posts to carry much more information than a 256-char post. This led to the development of services like patter, an IRC equivalent using ADN, and blog, which allows for long-form writing. Now, they’ve launched file uploads (10GB per paid user), and at this point, app.net is able to serve as the core of nearly any social-network-related app or site.

Most importantly, they’ve done all of the above well. The ADN staff has shown an abundance of caution, and aside from yesterday (during the launch of free accounts), the site has seldom been slow, and I’ve never once run into a bug or major error while using the site (or a 3rd party client).

Speaking of 3rd party clients, the developer community has stepped up nicely. Mac OS X has a great new app.net client called Kiwi, and there are great clients for iPhone (Riposte is my choice) and for iPad (NetBot wins). So, it’s well-adopted in the dev community, and there’s no shortage of good solutions for posting and interacting with the service, although the permanence of 3rd party services is always worth questioning.

The most important question, though, is what the experience is is like for users. Well, having spent 6 months or so on the service, I’d like to speak to that. We’ll start with the problem, then move to the joys.

App.net’s biggest problem

App.net is already better than Twitter and Facebook for many things. The problem facing app.net is the same problem facing any other nascent social networking site: your friends aren’t on it.

Right now, as many people have rightly pointed out, App.net is a magnificent place to talk about new technology, programming, and other “techie” kind of interests. This is not to say that there are not other “normal” people on the site, but they’re vastly outnumbered, and early in its lifetime, ADN certainly had more than its fair share of “brogrammers” (a wonderful term in its own right), although that too is changing.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there is only one person that I have met in real life who is on App.net. The majority of people that I know are on Facebook, simply because the majority of people that they know are on Facebook. It’s a tough sell to get anybody on a new social network, even tougher to be the first of their group of friends on it. App.net’s welcoming community dulls that pain, and has allowed me to meet very interesting people who I never would’ve interacted with otherwise. Ultimately, though, when you meet people that way, you end up with that strange, modern sort of friend who is your friend because you’ve learned about them online, rather than people who you learn about online because they’re already a friend.

This is not just a question of your local network. On Twitter, nearly every news agency, university, organization, and company has a Twitter feed that you can follow for updates, but right now, there are relatively few of these institutions on App.net, and because I rely on their Twitter feeds for sources of news and information, I’m forced to also use Twitter. This is a different subset of people who are not on the service who I wish were, and I badly wish that the ADN folks would track down news services, celebrities, and prominent bloggers and simply offer them a free verified accounts.

In order for App.net to take off, enough people have to see enough use for the service that it gains a critical mass of friends. You use Facebook because of the people on it, despite the service. ADN doesn’t have the people, so they badly need to show off how good that service can be. If I worked for App.net, my highest priority right now would be giving a top-of-the-line, reference implementation of the protocol available from the web which shows off not only how app.net is different, but why you need to be using it instead of your existing network. Something that I can show a friend and say “Look at what $36 a year can get you beyond Facebook or Twitter!”, and something with a bit more flash than what Alpha (the current reference implementation) provides.

Nevertheless, the current lack of people is something that I hope will change. App.net’s new “freemium” Model will lower the barrier of entry for many, and the invitation-based system will help people bring the people they care about onto the system. But the fact of the matter is that right now, ADN is a little too subtle about what it offers that existing solutions do not, and although an open API is a great lure for techie types, it means absolutely nothing to my aunt, my colleagues, or my next-door neighbor.

But there is a reason to love it, even without everybody you know.

A Fundamentally Human Social Network

App.net right now is fundamentally human. Right now, you can be reasonably sure that every person posting is an actual human, using their account for actual human purposes. Because a person had to pay to set up an account, you get fewer accounts which simply serve to notify about a given product, project, or service. In addition, spam is more-or-less absent (microspam excepted), and there’s a greater feeling of ownership of content and niceness, simply because, I think, people are paying to write it.

So, unlike with Twitter, where the vast majority of feeds are for publicity, notification, spamming (and other forms of marketing), or special-purpose secondary accounts, the signal-to-noise ratio is much much higher. It’s safe to say that the majority of App.net posts are by humans, for humans. You can, of course, carefully curate your twitter stream to only include human posts, but even still, advertising spam (even the officially endorsed versions) is impossible to avoid.

In addition, although it seems like a silly difference, the ability to write up to 256 characters makes for a surprising improvement in conversation and post quality. There are a great many things that can’t really be adequately said in 140 that can be in 256, and this, coupled with most clients’ robust support for conversation views, makes for a great medium someplace in between IRC-style chat and blog post conversations.

The idea of this strong social API is a brilliant one, and is already starting to work. I already mentioned patter, which provides IRC style chat using your ADN account. The true strength of app.net was shown to me the day that Felix Baumgartner made his supersonic jump, and by clicking a single link, I was frictionless-ly logged into a chat room to discuss it live as it happened, using the same credentials, friends, and service that I was already used to. With the advent of more services along these lines, having an app.net login, I hope, will be the key to a kingdom of interrelated apps.

Give it a try

Right now, App.net offers a wonderful microblogging experience with a number of great clients, great third-party apps, and a pleasant community and vibe. The biggest problem (really, the only major one) is that it’s new and hasn’t been widely adopted outside the techie world. But the best way to change that is to sign up.

Now that free accounts are available by invitation, there’s no good reason not to sign up and poke around a bit.

EDIT (6/8/2014): A bit more than a year later, I’ve left App.net. It’s still a very nice service, and I wish them all the success in the world, but the lack of a good Mac app, coupled with the limited buy-in and participation of my actual friends, family, as well as news agencies and companies, left it little more than a specialized online discussion forum with lots of people I knew only from App.net. They’re very good people, but as I have little time to spend these days, I just wasn’t spending it there.


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