First: Twitter. I like Twitter. I use it daily, and it’s become invaluable to me for three reasons: 1) It’s a great realtime news network, both for discovery and searching, 2) I’ve had some interesting and fun conversations, in short bursts, and 3) For some reason, companies, especially small ones, respond much faster to general support requests issued via twitter than almost any other medium. It took me a very long time to see the value of Twitter, and I had to cultivate a network of people to follow who would deliver me the news I actually wanted to see and the interesting thoughts I wanted to respond to. I suspect that most people won’t do this work, and those are the people who don’t see the value of Twitter. Almost none of my actual friends are on Twitter. Most of them still accept the “tweet what you’re eating for breakfast” canard.
Second: Facebook. My actual friends are on Facebook. My relatives are on Facebook. Everyone is on Facebook. Facebook’s great triumph is that somehow, millions of normal humans who are otherwise completely incapable of handling whatever passes for a “REGISTER NOW FOR A FREE ACCOUNT” form on the internet have managed to acquire Facebook logins and use them on a regular basis. I do not ever expect this to happen again. Facebook is a part of the landscape, and I don’t see how it can be challenged at any time in the near future. But it doesn’t have to be. Other services can happily coexist with Facebook, and those who want them will use them.
Facebook is known to be mining personal information, they change stuff all the time, and they’re a fairly constant background in the social network space. For reasons outlined in the previous paragraph, they’re not going away anytime soon. Since they’re so out of reach, I don’t see that they’re in play here, and not really relevant when talking about a new social network. Twitter, on the other hand, seems vulnerable, despite the big push they’re getting from Apple via OS integration. As a user, I find it fairly easy to ignore most of the various advertising pushes, but in general, I tend to view advertising as a nice way for companies to waste their money on something I’m just going to ignore (I keep searching for a way to prove that this is actually true; no one seems to believe me when I say I’m almost completely immune to advertising). As a programmer, I’m fairly dismayed by the turns that Twitter has taken to upset their developer community. Their third-party clients are what makes the platform tolerable, and I hope they come around to seeing that. If I had to use Twitter on the web, I possibly wouldn’t. However, I think even that is largely irrelevant. Twitter is vulnerable not by nature of alienating current users, but by what they don’t want to be.
When I first started using Twitter, I thought it would be hard to express fully-formed thoughts in 140 characters. As it turns out, we’ve gotten much better at that and some of the underlying metadata changes have helped, but it’s still fairly limiting. On the other hand, I immediately thought that 140 bytes would make a great size for a large distributed message passing mechanism for programs to talk to one another; messages not meant to be seen by people. For all I know, people are actually using private accounts for this, but I envisioned that these would be public messages, publicly addressable, but by your machine to my machine instead of you to me. Maybe it would be chess moves, or picture sharing, or whatever, but your app could find and direct messages to me just by using the already public mechanism instead of forcing me to register for YET ANOTHER network. These messages might involve text, and they might even involve character limits, but they’ll carry a lot of other payload that’s not meant to be human-readable, and will be interpreted by the endpoints. The real play here is that you’ll be using an application that isn’t “app.net”, but it will use that account to find you and communicate with you. Conversations will happen wherever there are people, but it’s still very hard for machines to find each other properly.
Enter app.net. A lot of people seem to think that the whole approach is either folly or outright disingenuous (“bash twitter, and oh, by the way, we’re starting a competitor”), but it seems to me that that’s not what’s going on here. I’m not privy to the backstory other than what I’ve read, but it looks to me like he was building some other product, got fed up with platform issues, and decided to take a gamble and pivot to a pure API play if there’s sufficient interest in the form of a kickstarter-esque backing campaign. If the project doesn’t get “funded”, I suppose we’ll see what happens. It will have been an interesting PR exercise in any event.
The API infrastructure messaging plan is big, and it’ll require a lot of thoughtful planning and work to make it actually useful, but that’s what I see when Dalton says he’s launching “a financially sustainable realtime feed API & service”. App.net doesn’t have to kill Twitter to be successful, it just has to move into the space that Twitter never really found itself at home in. I hope he manages to pull it off. That’s why I backed it, and I think you should too.
(I’m @fields on app.net and twitter. Don’t bother finding me on Facebook if you don’t already know me.)