Rethinking Social Networks : The App.Net move

Social Network

Social Networks are high in people’s minds right now.  Twitter is annoying its developers, trying to become an island rather than the convenient platform it used to be.  Facebook is a mess, a jumble of confusing options, an unfriendly interface, and adverts jumping out at every corner – it reminds me more of the pre-Google Altavista than anything else.  And there is reaction to this.  The Diaspora project seems to have gone nowhere, but newcomer App.Net has hit a kickstarter target – and, by getting enough people to make a cash commitment has become interesting.

App.Net makes two points:

  • At the moment, the customers of social networking sites are not the users, but the advertisers.  So long as the users are tied in, they will remain, and their eyeballs will be able to be exchanged for the contents of advertisers wallets.  A social network designed for users needs to be funded by the users – they need to be the customers
  • What makes a social network work is when it ceases to be a website and becomes a platform

Its worth describing two geek fallacies before we continue:

Fallacy 1:  Any good internet project is distributed in nature.

This is the flaw of Diaspora.  Geeks love us some hard distributed systems problems, but the take away from the user the simplicity of going to a single place – the same place as everyone else – to get what they want.  Distributed technologies such as social media require people to provide servers – but these servers have to be paid for, so people will charge.  Charging isn’t too bad, except any such server must, by its nature be a commodity, there is little room for differentiation.  It is hard to see why anyone would want to get into this game – see the decline of usenet servers as an example.

Fallacy 2: It is all about the platform

UIs are for wusses.  What matters is the clever technology underneath.  This is both true, and false.  What matters to must users is that users get the features they are looking for – it doesn’t matter if the backend has some hyper-clever architecture or runs in Spectrum BASIC if it does the job and keeps out of the way.  Geeks think differently – they want to know that their lives are going to remain easy as they interact with the system over time, so they design platforms which you can build good products on top of, but don’t care that much about the product.  I fear this might be what app.net are doing.  I hope I’m proven wrong.

Where app.net have been clever is in using Kickstarter for some cash.  Not because they needed the cash (if you can convince that number of individuals to pony up $50, you can probably convince some investors to do likewise).  Getting the cash gave app.net some publicity, because Kickstarter is hot right now, and social networks are causing consternation – and for a social network to get going, it needs publicity.  But it also got a number of people to tie themselves into the service – and the sort of people who would fund a new social network are early adopters, the thought leaders in the social sphere, and this could be very important to app.net’s growth.

But it could be more important to the people who paid for the developers licence.

Right now, if I wanted to try something new and interesting in the social world, I would seriously consider tying it in with app.net – because its a small market of exactly the sort of people you want playing with your fresh idea.

I don’t think there is anything special about app.net in itself, but I expect it to be a breeding ground for interesting social graph based applications.  So in app.net’s case, perhaps by building the platform, they are doing the right thing, even if it isn’t the right thing for them.

Incidentally, I have a number of thoughts about the next moves that could be made in social networking – I’ll be writing about them over the next few days.

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© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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