Last week, App.net announced the addition of a File API, enabling developers to recreate almost any kind of social functionality using App.net as a back-end. This is interesting news for developers, but more importantly, it signals the beginning of a shift in thinking about the way users relate to the content they publish and consume.
A Bold Direction
When it launched last year, App.net was little more than a Twitter clone, though it came with the promise of eventually becoming a full-fledged social platform. The addition of content annotations opened up the possibility of adding geotags or other metadata to posts. Now, with the addition of file storage and the accompanying API, a clever developer can replicate almost any social functionality using App.net.
This update singlehandedly validates the existence of the service. Now, rather than being a mere Twitter alternative, App.net is a full-fledged social platform on which developers can build any kind of social product. App.net handles the back-end data, while the front-end app does the rest. Describing the service’s strategy, CEO Dalton Caldwell says: “You don’t have to control the pixels the users see. You’re not selling the data that’s going through the pipe; you’re selling the pipe.”
This update sheds some light on App.net’s eventual ambitions. As The Verge pointed out, the service is structured less like an end product and more like infrastructure — its business strategy is less like Twitter’s and more like a hosting or broadband provider. This strategy brings with it the privacy, stability, and predictability typical of infrastructure services, all of which are essential for maintaining a healthy developer ecosystem.
A few years ago, A List Apart introduced us to the concept of orbital content. Put simply, content has an “orbit” which defines how it is consumed. Content that orbits a website is stuck to that site — to access a Facebook post, for instance, a user must navigate to Facebook. Content that orbits a user can be disassociated from its point of origination, and consumed in any way the user chooses.
In the ALA article, Cameron Koczon says it best:
Most online content today is stuck. It has roots firmly planted in one of the many sites and applications around the web. Because content is rooted, we are forced to spend precious time recording its location in the hopes of navigating back. We bookmark websites. We favorite tweets. We create lists in text files.
In this system, the sites are the gravitational center and we, the users, orbit them, reaching out for a connection whenever we want to interact with the content. This is a fine system, but as users spend more time on consumption-oriented devices like iPads and mobile phones, new demands are being put on content.
Under the current model, content tends to be siloed in the site or service where it originated. A CNN article can only be viewed on CNN’s website or app, except through content scraping. Likewise with Facebook statuses and Tumblr posts.
Within its own ecosystem, App.net is weighted towards content that orbits the user, rather than the service itself. By providing a unified API on which numerous types of app can run, it ensures that content is associated with a user account instead of a specific app. The same user account can be associated with multiple apps, and the user can approve or deny permissions for each app. The recent File API announcement post discusses this:
Imagine a world in which your social data (e.g. messages, photos, videos) was easier to work with. For instance, imagine you could try out a new photo sharing service without having to move all of your photos and social graph.
In this world, your photos are held in a data store controlled by you. If you want to try out a new service, you can seamlessly login and choose to give permission to that service, and the photos that you have granted access to would be immediately available.
This is one benefit of an “unbundled” social service. Unbundling gives the user power to pick the software that best suits their needs, rather than being forced to use the software made by the company that manages their data.
This is an immensely powerful idea, but unless a single service gained the ubiquity to be used across the entire internet, it’s still just a proof-of-concept. We’re taking steps in the right direction, but we’re not there yet:
- Instapaper and Readability allow users to disassociate content from its point of origin, but at their core they’re still content scrapers.
- Facebook is nearing ubiquity, but its API isn’t open enough to foster more widespread usage beyond simple social networking.
- Twitter had the right idea, but the lure of advertising dollars has engaged it in practices that are antagonistic to developers.
What we really need is a universal, open protocol for social interactions on the internet. Users could have a single account to which all their data and content is tied, and third-party services could access whatever information the user chooses to make available. Perhaps this is unreasonably ambitious, especially considering the friction between this idea and typical social business models. Even if a universal social standard never becomes a possibility, however, services like App.net continue to carry the torch.
Backbone of the Social Web
With robust APIs for both communication and file storage, App.net is clearly positioning itself as a provider of social infrastructure for front-end applications. With a pricing model that caters to users rather than advertisers, and the suggestion that a free membership tier could be on the way, it seems that App.net is attempting to make itself more attractive to the general public.
Will App.net ever be the dominant force of the social web? It’s unlikely, considering the sheer mass achieved by Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. On the other hand, the internet has created an environment where entrenchment means less than it used to, and the fall of giants like MySpace gives new hope to scrappy underdogs everywhere. App.net may always be a niche community, but it presents an idea that will surely influence future services as well. It reflects an understanding of the benefits of being a back-end service rather than a front-end destination, and its relationship with app developers resembles that of a smartphone manufacturer more than a social network.
A platform is only as good as the ecosystem it fosters. No matter how robust App.net is, without the front-end apps to attract users, it will remain stagnant. Caldwell and company need to get the flywheel turning: the more popular apps there are, the more users will join App.net, and the greater the incentive will be for developers to build more apps.
App.net clearly isn’t aiming for ubiquity — unlike Facebook or Twitter, the service doesn’t need millions of pageviews to keep advertisers happy. In Caldwell’s own words, “We don’t need to take over the world to exist and be useful.”
This is the attitude that makes App.net’s ambitions more than just a pie-in-the-sky endeavor. Social companies have a tendency to start idealistically, and then crumple under the realities of an advertiser-centric business model. Consider Facebook: it started out with grand plans for making the world more transparent, but less than a decade later, it resorts to breaking its own functionality to appease advertisers (though it’s gradually reverting back).
For all we talk about social media and the “new economy,” the Big Social companies share a business model with Basic Cable. Consumers get to use the services for free, while the services subsidize themselves by selling the consumers’ attention and data to advertisers. If there’s a market for premium channels like HBO, why wouldn’t there be a market for premium social networks like App.net?
The majority of users will always prefer the free option, so don’t expect a mass exodus from Twitter or Facebook for paid options like App.net. There will always be a contingent whose main concern is privacy or stability, however. As the only service intentionally catering to those users, App.net has a chance to become a heavyweight in its niche.
Images of App.net in the wild provided by PlaceIt.