Opinion: Why App.net hasn't failed and why it hasn't been a success either

May 11, 2014 · 5 minutes read
App.net Logo

App.net Logo

I really love App.net. There, I said it. Just wanted to make that perfectly clear before I dive into this topic.

App.net, or ADN as many like to call it, has been around since August 2012. Initially Mixed Media Labs, the company behind ADN, had launched the service as a Twitter competitor using a Kickstarter campaign to gain traction and collect much needed funds . Their idea: to create a service where the user pays a small fee each month to use the service and with that becomes the real owner of his data. The service doesn’t need to sell its user base to advertisers to keep the lights on (unlike Twitter, Facebook and so many of social networks).

Recently, those initial users/supporters were up for subscription renewal.

About a week ago, Dalton Caldwell announced that the renewal rate wasn’t high enough to further employ any full-time employees. The operational costs, however, can be covered by the expected revenue, so that the service could be operated indefinitely as long as its users support it.
This news sparked a slew of articles and discussions all around the tech space. Opinions varied from “What the heck is ADN?”, to “They should just shut it down! Nobody cares about it (anymore), anyway.” or “I used it for a while, but just didn’t see its point”. A few people voiced their loving support, but overall the sentiment seems to be that this is the death of ADN and that they have failed.

They failed to get enough users to sign up for the service (which for most people seems to mean Alpha, the Twitter equivalent of ADN) thus they failed to achieve what they set out to do. That’s where I start to disagree.
It’s true, that they didn’t get enough (paying) users to create a sustainable business. And even if you take the free users into account, ADN wasn’t even close to being big enough as a social network to get over the initial hump of “None of my friends is there, so why should I sign up???”. That’s an issue most social services have. And not an easy one to tackle.
From that standpoint, yes they failed. If they had set out to make Twitter obsolete or become at least one of the Top 4 Social networks out there, we could say they failed miserably.
If we ask the question “Based on what we’ve learned from ADN, are people willing to pay for a social network?”, we probably could argue about it for a long time. Some say yes, because some people gladly paid for it; Some say no, because ADN couldn’t get enough money/users. At the end of the day, we don’t really know what’s true. The service just isn’t old enough or the sample size big/small enough to have a definite answer.

Maybe ADNs approach was wrong. They certainly made a few mistakes along the way, not making it perfectly clear what they are being one of them. Is ADN just a better Twitter? Is it a file storage service? Is it an API or a platform for developers? If you’ve listened to anyone from ADN talking about the service in the past two years, you ’ve heard many different versions of what ADN is or could be. And who could blame them? ADN was and still is a big experiment. Both in the small details (256 characters on Alpha vs. 140 on Twitter) and the more general philosophy (of peoples willingness to pay for such a service). Nobody knew how it would turn out and who knows, maybe it will be a huge success in the future after another pivot. They sure have the expertise for it.

So, what did they set out to achieve? Two things:

  1. Enable users to pay for a service and own the data they put into it
  2. Create a platform for developers to build social applications

By that measurement, I think they succeeded. The list of apps and services is long and even though a few of them only integrate with ADN (like Buffer or Hootsuite) there are those apps that have been built on top of it. Apps like Favd (a photo sharing app), Felix (chat), Climber (video) or Orbit (file sharing). They might not have been the huge successes one could imagine, but they all used ADNs platform and from what I heard it was relatively easy to use and super stable.

In the end, ADN has both succeeded and failed. As for the future of ADN, there are really only two things that can happen in the next couple of months: either most of the users are leaving the sinking ship and it dies, or they love the service so much that they stay and help growing the service (and the business) to a point where it can stand on its own legs again.

I signed up for ADN in November 2012. Back then, it was more out of curiosity. I had heard about the service a couple of times and I simply wanted to know what it was all about.
Since then, I’ve been hooked! I really enjoy the conversations there. Whether it’s because of the higher character limit or because the people there seem to be a little bit more on the geeky side, I can’t tell. It always felt like our very own corner of the internet. And I hope, it will stay that way for a long, long time…