As a fairly prolific poster and emotionally invested participant in app.net who is not immune to the emotional turmoil that has developed since the State of the Union posting, but particularly over the last few days, I want to share my personal perspective on the development of app.net and a few thoughts that I have regarding projects set up to be a successor-in-spirit of sorts.
As these things go, these observations are purely my own. I am acutely aware that I only have the limited perspective of a regular user. I know nothing about the internal dealings of app.net’s founders, their relationship to investors and those parties priorities. I try to not make assumptions about them, but I might be failing at that in a few points.
The original outlook of having an alternative to Twitter – a product in many ways aligned more with ideals of one who grew up in an Internet that was not primarily driven by a quest for ad revenue – was so promising I backed the original crowdfunding drive fairly quickly. As soon as I had access to the system, I fairly quickly spent less and less time on Twitter and more and more time on the microblog that was app.net at that time. New clients emerged, people put in time and energy to support a growing infrastructure. It was fun to be there. But not long after the project took of, the first high-profile personalities left the network: @gruber and @marco, and a few others. The first clients got abandoned: moApp and appetizer – their authors also leaving the network behind. But that didn’t change the tone of the network. Stuff still happened, the network still felt mostly like being built up and being maintained.
But over time, things changed. Suddenly, we heard that Microblogging was not the primary focus of app.net. Rather, it was about infrastructure and providing plumbing to other, novel applications that were not about microblogging. Tentative steps were taken in that direction, and a few apps did show up. Also, development happened around the microblogging service that took it entirely new places: Patter, Treeview – all stuff that simply was not possible with Twitter. Stuff thought up and implemented by independent developers, but dependent on the stuff app.net provides – and the microblogging component .But the official line of founders continued to be that the microblogging stuff was only a showcase application of the actual product, the infrastructure. Often-requested features on that side were not implemented; a few things in the API remain in a less-than-ideal state until today.
What app.net did to encourage new products to take them up for their offerings, how they spoke to developers who might have had an interest in integrating app.net in their stuff I don’t know. And while there were new applications integrating app.net in their offerings (Sunlit and Momento come to mind), it appears that they were more geared towards those users who already were on app.net instead of bringing in new users who would also pay for their usage of app.net.
And as a developer, I remain unconvinced of integrating app.net in products. I do not see a benefit of using that infrastructure over using my own. The user base is not large enough to be interesting as a potential target audience; and I would essentially be bringing another company customers. Why would I not want to have that money come in to my own company? And I know for sure I am not the only one who sees things that way.
But what the shifting focus of the app.net team also meant that there no longer was community management. The culture degraded; and while many noticed and drew their own conclusions, no changes were instituted to work against that. There were no role models or mediators; things just went downhill. But not looking at the community seems to have been intentional: no structures were put in place to help tend the community; no resources were invested in making sure that the positive culture of the early days was encouraged.
What I personally take away from this? If you have a product, it pays off to have a clear, easily-communicable value proposition. I do not see that in app.net’s case. If you start building a community, you have to make sure you have the resources to work with the community and to shape it the way you want. And if you want your communications channel to be used by more than a very specific segment of the population, you need to make sure that diversity happens, because only then are enough topics apparent enough that new people coming in will find ways to connect. Just withdrawing and focussing purely on technical aspects is – to me! – not the way that makes an endeavor like that succeed. Do I think it’s easy? No, not at all. Encouraging good communication habits, setting good examples for new and old users is very hard work to get right. But I see little alternatives to make an open network work.