I’ve recently jumped onto a new social networking service called app.net. Founded by Dalton Caldwell, app.net is, at a basic level, an ad-free version of Twitter. You basically pay $5 a month or $36 a year to join, and from there it’s pretty smooth sailing. Like any new service online, there’s a small fanatical userbase laying the groundwork for the new community, including the “tone”…
A few years ago, when Ryan and I were kicking off TNL, one of the things we thought about was setting the standard for discourse in the community. The initial way we did this was via an invite system. We basically told people we knew and liked about the new site, gave them the gateway password, and told them to have at it while we built it. We invited people we knew were capable of intelligent discourse, as well as deliberately inviting a few “disruptive” elements, just to see if our little idea of the community setting the tone worked. For the most part, it did. Where our previous community frequently walked the line with porn, spam, and some pretty vicious personal battles, the TNL experiment proved to be mild in comparison. (Yes, mild…I wish we exported the blue site DB before we got shown the door, there were some real gems in there!) However, in general, it seemed to prove a point that an online community, especially a niche one, is capable of being largely self-regulating.
But, if a community grows to be amazingly large, can it self-police? It’s hard to say. Look at Facebook. Even if you have a limited friend list, you are still subject to the content they post, and they generally take influence from their friends, and so on. So, Facebook has devolved into a mindless mash of memes, chain letters, tabloid news, and general idiocy. However, objectively, sometimes general idiocy can be fun. I’ll gladly admit to laughing at the latest meme. I love “Me Gusta” ragefaces and the “Because ‘Fuck You’, That’s Why!” meme actually kind of sums up how I feel about most things I do. However, the general tone of Facebook is one of a shopping mall with disinterested mall cops who only do what they have to do, in order to keep their jobs. And the self-policing actions are generally arbitrary. People will laugh at a video of a guy getting hit by a train, but not if it originated from someone they have a problem with. Then it’s game on, they’re clicking “hide/report” for all it’s worth.
Twitter isn’t much better off. Due to it’s nature it is limited to short messages, but now that they have to make money, they are injecting ads into every available nook and cranny of the service. Which, since it’s a free service, they have every right to. It’s basically the mall, but you can only say things in short sentences. Very chaotic, and of course prone to brain-dropping syndrome.
Now, app.net is far smaller than both Facebook and Twitter. As of last count, they have less than 30,000 users. Which isn’t bad for a service that is not owned by a major corporation, and explicitly asks you to pay money for access, in exchange for providing a clean and friendly environment. It is the VIP lounge of the social networking scene. Well, back when VIP lounges actually were VIP anyhow.
The virtue of this small paywall is that it tends to keep the casual user out. When you have an open social network or community site, basically anyone with something to say can come by. Now, I’m all about giving people the freedom to express themselves, but on the internet, the price of that freedom is spam and a lower quality of conduct. On a free network, that is. Spammers aren’t going to pay to access a small community of individuals who have no interest in their products, and anyone with a “casual” opinion or an insult isn’t going to pay money just to rattle someone’s cage. With app.net, it has led to a general atmosphere of camaraderie and educated discourse. While the language itself is as “free” as any other site, it’s generally used in context, and not just for the sake of saying “fuck” every third word. And the feeling is generally virulent. The user feels he or she needs to be at the level of the community in order to engage them. I post on there a few times a day, and I’m usually pretty cautious about how I phrase myself. Now, one of the virtues of app.net is an open API. You pay a little extra for access, but it allows for a whole host of third-party applications and tie-ins. Today, I started using an IFTTTrecipe to link my Instagram feed to app.net. While something like this is encouraged as it makes app.net more appealing, I almost feel that I should maybe de-link it, since some of my Instagrams are a bit low-brow for the community.
However, it seems app.net, with it’s spirit of dissatisfaction against the status quo of monolithic and exploitative social networks like Facebook and Twitter, is proving on a larger scale, that the early adopters can and do set the tone and unwritten code of conduct for a web community and social network. It will be an interesting experiment to watch, especially if it catches fire in a major way. How will advertisers approach a community that has no love for their techniques, but still uses their products anyways? How will they advertise in a place with no advertising mechanism? Will app.net cancel the accounts of spammers? Those questions do remain. I can see “guerrilla marketers” and so-called “social media consultants” signing up at the least. Those types of people lose sleep over the fact that somewhere in the world, there’s a social media service they aren’t a part of. God forbid their already-rigged metrics slip half a percentage point. Wait till they find out there’s services in China with half-a-billion members who conduct their daily discourse entirely in Mandarin. They’ll be running down to the mall kiosks to buy Rosetta Stone - Mandarin Edition.
Thankfully app.net has a very prominent blocking feature.
The way I see it developing is much like TV networks such as HBO did. People specifically pay money to access HBO, not only for it’s quality unfiltered content, but because there are no obvious ads. I say ‘obvious’ since I do consider the little half-hour bits about stuff on HBO produced by HBO to be a form of advertising designed to keep you subscribed. Which is fine. It is the service merely preserving itself. I guess the app.net staff does the same thing, since Dalton actively participates in the community and keeps people informed on “what’s next…”
Personally, I think it’s the future. I think social media is going to go more “boutique”, and less “mall”, and people will have to adjust their thinking accordingly. The open internet will and should always still be there, but more and more, I see paid-for and niche social and community sites becoming the norm as people tire of the constant bombardment of advertisers on the large free services like Facebook and Twitter.
They aren’t destined for failure either. I can actually see them adopting a two-tiered approach in the classic web fashion. Free access with ads, or pay a small monthly fee to remove them. They’ll take a page from the small innovators like app.net and call it their own. However, to truly compete, they need more effective filters. An ad-free experience means nothing if there’s still guerrilla marketers vying for your attention. “Hey Pod, haven’t seen you in awhile, how’s life? Oh really? Cool, well, ya know, I can get you 10,000 followers in a month if you act right now!”.
But that’s for another rant.
I think I’m going to go post some cat photos on Facebook and say the word ‘fuck’ a few times in succession. Then off to app.net and make recommendations on camera equipment.