Can You Beat Facebook And Twitter With Pay To Play Social Networks
Monday, 13th August 2012
This is the challenge that app.net is facing and here are my concerns as to why I think they face an up-hill struggle to beat the social networks with their awesome idea for a "Social Network Free Of Ads".
Since their audacious proposal on 13th July 2012, to achieving funding on 11th August 2012, a full day and a half before their funding deadline and a full bag of cash over their funding requirement, app.net has been making developers excited all over the planet.
You can read the full proposal, but the idea is that app.net will be a platform with a cool API, a bit like Twitter before they made changes to their API.
This new platform won't run ads, but you'll have to pay to play. Currently, the proposal is that you'd pay $50 (£32) each year to be a member of the network.
In particular, the app.net platform will be attractive to developers with promises around what the API will do and the kind of tool-chain that will surround it.
One of the main examples of the business model being proposed by app.net is a comparison between SourceForge and GitHub. SourceForge was ad-supported and GitHub was premium supported. Developers were eventually drawn to GitHub because the absence of ads made it easier to use and when they needed pro features, GitHub got the cash.
This is all well and good, but getting developers to pay for development tools is easy. Developers pay for IDE's, extensions, hosting and all kinds of development ephemera. They are used to paying for source control, whether it is the cost of running a server themselves with Subversion, or whether it is using a hosted distributed system like GitHub.
Clearly, developers will have no problem linking the benefits of app.net to the need to pay for it.
Social networks aren't really for developers though. They are for all kinds of people. And the heart of the issue is this: if you received a friend request from some new "FriendFace" website and they wanted you to pay a yearly fee to be on the network, would you accept it?
Most of your friends are already on Twitter or Facebook - so even another free social network is going to struggle to make you switch. So how can app.net gain traction when the primary attraction is your existing friends and acquaintances?
Even if you do make the switch, it will be you and the friend who invited you. Not exactly a stimulating conversation. So now you have to try and sell a paid social network to your other chums - as if people didn't already get testy with Tweets saying "Check out my Facebook page" - duh! we iz on Twitter innit.
You only have to look at Google+ to see how hard it is to tempt users away from their current social network - and MySpace is no use as a comparison because it died a death over crazy massive pages that never seemed to load.
This isn't to say that the whole thing is impossible, but the message of "adverts are bad, paying is good" seems a little simplistic. Surely the message should be "we respect privacy and openness, so whatever we do to make money, it won't be at the cost of your privacy and whatever we add to our API, we won't shut our doors on existing applications".
With these principles, they could try out different ways to make money, including advertising, but not user-specific targeted invasive advertising. This is the kind of principle that has rocket Duck Duck Go into stardom - a search engine that respects privacy: novel.
The other major problem is that despite app.net offering us an advert-free experience, it doesn't take long for brands to realise they need presence on a platform and they will find a way of delivering a message on app.net whether adverts are allowed or not. In some ways, allowing advertising allows you to distinguish between adverts and discussions, whereas an ad-free platform forces it all underground. Imagine the tiresome "share this if you want to win something" messages sweeping across the platform if it is a success.
So this is my conclusion. The promise of a stable open API is a great turn on for developers, but given that the platform is likely to struggle to attract the people app.net is doomed to be a great idea that doesn't gain traction.