I haven’t quite figured out what to make of App.net. On the one hand, I’ve been worried about the corporate nature of Twitter for a while — the service is an important utility, and I dread the rents that are going to be slowly, irritatingly and indirectly extracted from all of us as the company gets serious about making money. App.net wants to be distributed, open and transparently funded; those are exactly the qualities I’d like to see in a Twitter replacement.
Yet I’m conflicted: I remember a wave of excitement around Identi.ca and XMPP that was motivated by many of the same concerns. People were talking about federating with Twitter, building something more like SMTP or Usenet. Some early adopters cross-posted between the two services, but Identi.ca never really went anywhere. I haven’t followed the fortunes of the platform closely, but I see troublingly few people asking how App.net will be substantively different, and even fewer plausible answers.
Predictably, the valley types most excited about App.net are talking about its odds in terms of its technology and business model. This is understandable: these are things that can be controlled. It is both self-flattering and empowering to pretend that these are the most important inputs to the equation that will determine a technology project’s fate. Nobody likes talking about overcoming network effects or path dependence. Certainly no one wants to talk about dumb luck, novelty, stylishness or the role that celebrities like Ashton Kutcher played in making Twitter a hit. Not unless Marco Arment counts as a Kutcher-equivalent, anyway.
I wish these guys success, but it does seem like, having watched David challenge Goliath and lose, they’ve decided to make the next David a new shirt and send him back into the fray. Well, fingers crossed.
What’s a bit more interesting is the idea that all of this is part of a new trend. You can find pieces proposing that Svbtle, Medium, App.net and their ilk all represent some kind of noveau-social-web minimalist/anticorporate movement (unsurprisingly, BuzzFeed has the one I found most easily via Google).
This is stupid. Refactoring software is not a process that stops. As I’ve said before, I think online disillusionment and reinvention is a cyclical phenomenon, but that the periods of these cycles are increasingly out of sync. By way of example, it seems suspicious that this allegedly-new ad-eschewing, content-esteeming minimalist web publishing movement seemingly doesn’t include Tumblr or Instapaper. Those services are a couple of years old though, you see. Not much use for a trend story! And the novelty that these latest sites offer is strikingly threadbare — nobody’s even mustering a story as compelling as the celebration of Tumblr’s incredible “like” (and not unlike!) button innovation. What they offer is not being the current thing, but seemingly not much else.
Still, it may be true that something is happening. The relative popularity of social networks is a dynamic system, and no equilibrium in this space should be considered permanent. Sometimes I picture us as so many early-adopting wildebeests, wallowing in our watering hole, grazing and snorting and occasionally forming ranks against threats (SOPA, lions). But perhaps there is a ripple of unease growing: a sense that the grass is thinning, the seasons are changing, and we need to move, move, move. Knots will break away, tentatively and unsuccessfully at first, but at some point it will be like a bottle that’s uncorked, and we’ll all flow across the plain to whatever the next thing is.
I’ve talked about this before, too. It seems inevitable.
All of which brings me to Anil Dash’s post on this moment, or movement, or whatever you want to call it. Even apart from Dash’s unusually informed perspective, it’s well worth a read, and the impulses it represents are noble. I’m a bit more cynical: I think attracting early-adopting elites is an important part of a network’s success, and that exclusivity rarely hurts one’s chances. It’s not a pleasingly democratic perspective, but I don’t see any reason why these services should be exempt from the dynamics that clubs, restaurants, bands and political movements seem to be subject to. In this case, though, I’m not sure that the type of elites App.net is attracting — people who care about things like PuSH and Webfinger — will presage broader adoption by non-technical cultures.