Thoughts by Brennan Novak on Aug. 10, 2012
*Disclaimer: I've followed Dalton Caldwell since seeing him speak at Startup School 2010, he seems like a solid guy and I tend to agree with his thinking! As soon as Dalton posted his audacious proposal I was excited. I vocalized this excitement as well as backing the project at the $100 level. It's surprised me- the lack of interest / arguments against Dalton's App.net project. The fervor and debates waged on various blogs is interesting and, if anything, is an indicator.
A Brewing Distaste
Obviously, there is a dissatisfaction with monolithic-for-profit-data-silo social networks like Facebook and Twitter, just think about Diaspora, Status.net, the Federated Social Web, Indie Web Camp, and of course this project Social-Igniter (which i've been working on for 2+ years). What is considerably surprising to me is just how diverse everyones opinions about how they believe an alternative social web should be constructed- perhaps this is why there are no clear projects that have gained a critical mass (like what Wordpress is to blogging).
Distributed Social Web Is In Stasis
After years the distributed social web lingers in a weird state of many different people toiling on many different projects- each project rooted in someones idealized tool that meets their most idiosyncratic perfect case scenario:
"I want my personal website (micro blogging solution) to federate my posts to all of my friends sites via an rsynced folder using a flat file datastore and jekyll templates which allow me to write my updates in notational velocity" ~Programmer / Blogger
"Why not just build it on top of email? Everyone uses email... email is great for sending any data between people" ~Lazy Old School Programmer
"We should use CouchDB's replication feature to federate the data, and when MobileCouch is created it will even use mobile devices as independent nodes on the network" ~Hipster Hacker
The problem with any of these solutions is that they are all very difficult to implement for average people; things which are difficult to implement usually fail to garner widespread adoption. Now, consider, what is the first thing needed for a social network to be a successful? A large amount of users.Those two forces are diametrically opposed.
Why I'm Excited About App.net
My excitement for App.net is still largely a mystery to many of my open source friends. However, the other night while debating with Aaron PK, I finally figured out the clearest reason why I donated $100 immediately (I would have contributed $1,000 if I had been able). I'm not thinking of App.net as a Paid Twitter, yet with what Dalton is currently promising that is what we will get. I see App.net an easy to use distribution platform similar to PubSubHubBub that is masquerading as a social network. This will do two things for the Distributed Social Web:
- Provides an easy to signup & use social network service that functions very similar to what people are already familiar with (Twitter)
- Provides a solid API platform that is less likely to be yanked out under our feet when the VCs get antsy and want to see a profit or acquisition
- Developers are less likely to be stonewalled by new arbitrary TOS that jeopardize their products existence
With those factors in place, all of us perfectionist distributed social web enthusiasts, can write one simple wrapper to integrate with the App.net API and then my friends with different indie web solutions can make their apps subscribe / archive data from App.net- that solves a whole boatload of syndication / federation issues!
Will App.net last into the next decade and provide the backbone of the federated web? I don't know. No one knows what will do that. Services come and go. New technologies emerge. Will App.net right off the bat do more than Diaspora did? Yes. They already have a working product, as well as years of experience building solid web companies that perform at scale.
Why my points are invisible to my open source friends is beyond me- perhaps I'm blind with naiveté or idealism or both- but compared to an utterly bleak belief that all things (even if they are good at the start) eventually turn bad, as proclaimed by MG Siegler, that is a world view I will never accept. Because, by that logic there is nothing good in the world. Why am I not jaded about the outcome of Diaspora (as Siegler points out)? Because I never donated it to, because they were 4 inexperienced kids who had not created any open source projects at the time. I used common sense and didn't get caught up in the media hype. In the scope of web services that people will pay $50 or $100 to freely consider social web Vimeo or Flickr for a second, consider for second the quality of experience on those networks.
Additionally, to say a company like App.net cannot and will not work, it is pessimistic and short sighted. Platform as a Service companies like this do already exist, only they meet these demands of different protocols and platforms- consider email services like Mailgun , Postmark , and Sendgrid. Note, none of those services even provide an easy to use webmail client like Google Business Apps- which App.net is closer to doing. However, the one thing all these companies do is provide a simple service which allows people to reliably send secure emails across the internet while making many many programmers lives easier. Twilio and Tropo do the same with SMS and VOIP Calls.
The more I come to understand how the worlds of PR, politics, and sales work- what catches on the majority of the time are things that are packaged, sold, and/or described in ways that speak to a large enough audience to gain the needed critical mass. Perhaps that's biggest flaw with how App.net was presented thus far. Perhaps if Dalton had promised one or more of the following...
- The primary codebase will be open source
- A light weight client will be open source
- The infrastructure will follow at least one federated standard (oStatus, Webfinger, Salmon, Activity Streams)
- App.net will federate / push / syndicate data to Diaspora, Status.net, etc...
- Each paid user of App.net can sponsor friends (5, 10, 25, 50, etc...) to use the service for free
- If you donate Dalton will personally hand deliver to your doorstep 1 flying unicorn ninja who has been raised on grass fed organic bacon
...many of the people passionate about the Distributed Social Web or IndieWeb would have donated by now or at least be excited about App.net instead of only talking about "why it will fail."
I hope App.net reaches its goal and that the world gives it a chance. I really do.
Within an hour of me posting this, Dalton Caldwell responded on his blog "A response to Brennan Novak." I couldn't be happier with the things he is now publicly declaring will be in the future of App.net. Please consider donating to App.net is getting much closer to reaching it's goal - https://join.app.net