Social networking is too important to the future of the Web to be reliant on the advertising industry. That’s the argument put forward by the founder of an effort to create an open, ad-free social network closely modeled on Twitter but supported by fees from users.
Dalton Caldwell, who founded one of the Web’s earliest successful social networks, Imeem (see “IM-based Social Networking”), and sold it to MySpace in 2009, announced the project, App.net, last week to widespread interest from Web startups and developers. Caldwell has decided to divert the efforts of his current startup, Mixed Media Labs, to begin work on the project, and wants to raise $500,000 in donations to fund the rest. The project has already secured over $65,000 towards that goal. Donations have come from people paying the $50 annual member fee the service will charge, or larger amounts for the access that software developers need to build apps on the service. Mixed Media Labs received $5 million in investment funding in 2010 and originally worked on tools to help creators of mobile apps market them online.
Caldwell thinks the ad-supported business models adopted by Twitter and Facebook have encouraged those companies to create closed arenas that not only do a disservice to users but also choke online innovation. “Twitter created as fundamental a technical innovation as e-mail and HTML itself, and they totally blew it,” says Caldwell. He draws an analogy with the early days of the Web, when Netscape got the medium started by releasing the first mass-market Web browser. “If Netscape had decided to build a proprietary ecosystem and become a media company supported by advertising, we wouldn’t have the Web we do today,” Caldwell says.
Caldwell’s move was inspired by the positive response to a blog post he published this month lamenting recent moves by Twitter to restrict access by third-party apps and companies to its members’ data. Many of Twitter’s features and early traction came when the company adopted ideas—such as hashtags and retweets—that originated with its users, and when it let outside software developers tap into the network, which yielded the first desktop and mobile clients for Twitter. But in 2011 the company announced that it intended to provide the main, if not only, ways of accessing the service, and has increasingly restricted what outside developers can do ever since.
That appears to be motivated by Twitter’s need to establish its ad business, which relies on inserting paid-for messages into a user’s update stream. That creates an incentive to build a closed network that keeps users locked in to the main Twitter site, and puts their needs second, says Caldwell. He says the dynamic also afflicts Facebook. “They’re doing exactly the right thing for advertisers. If you’re not an advertiser, they’re not building it for you.” Caldwell says that offering a service paid for by users creates a clear, uncompromised incentive to do what’s best for them. He says the success of companies such as Dropbox and Evernote shows that people are willing to pay for online services. He also points out that more established communication networks such as the phone system have long gotten their revenue directly from their users.
The exact design and features of App.net will be shaped by feedback from supporters, but the basic form is intended to be similar to Twitter. Users can publish updates and subscribe to those of others to build a personalized real-time feed of content.
He acknowledges that he and many of those most excited by his project are “nerds,” but he contends that many people outside the tech community are leery of the increasing efforts of Twitter and Facebook to position ads around their socializing.
However, some who agree with his analysis question Caldwell’s solution.
“At least it’s gotta be open-source. And why can’t it be federated [distributed independently amongst multiple organizations],” tweeted Dave Winer last week, the inventor of the blog and of RSS. Winer also highlighted the fate of Diaspora, a proposal from undergraduates at NYU for a “distributed open-source social network” positioned as an alternative to Facebook (see “Leaving Facebook”) that rapidly raised $200,000 in donations but floundered technically and has failed to meet expectations.
Orian Marx, a software developer in New York who created Siftee, a service for filtering Twitter updates, says he thinks App.net has a good chance of success and could recapture some of the buzz that used to surround Twitter. “If a tech company is really open with its data and resources, it can create a mass ecosystem that creates innovation,” Marx says. However, he shares Winer’s interest in the potential for open standards for Twitter-style social connections that are not owned or operated by any single company.
Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment about its new competition in time for publication.