App.net: A Eulogy
I’ve written this post over and over again, trying to come to terms with the announcement App.net made a few days ago.
In another I was angry. Too angry. Angry with anyone I could find to blame for the failure.
Neither was right. It’s not my job or my desire to sit here and convince you that it’s over, or convince you that it isn’t. And more than that, the truth is I don’t know.
As an App.net developer with a well-used file-management client painfully close to being out of beta, and another half-dozen projects built on the platform in various states of completion, and as someone who has lived and breathed App.net and its community at least a little bit every day for the last year, I’ve been on a mini emotional roller-coaster these past few days.
Honestly, I think I’m grieving.
What we built.
The APIs are amazing! Like, so amazing! They are thought-out, and clear, and well documented, and realtime like you wouldn’t believe, and they work. Writing apps for App.net vs. writing apps for Facebook or Twitter is the difference between writing apps for Windows 3.1 and the iPhone.
But more than that, the support the App.net team offered to developers was unprecedented. I cannot express to you just how mind-blowing and wonderful it is to find a bug in an API, file a ticket, and be on the phone 20 minutes later, troubleshooting with the App.net the developer who’s responsible for that code. That level of support is something I’ve never experienced on any other platform, and it alone would have been enough to make developing for App.net a pure joy.1
But the technical side isn’t the whole story of what makes App.net a special place. Not by a long shot.
I have watched App.net’s community grow out of its early, navel-gazing stage, and into something remarkable.
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what is so different about App.net. It’s safe. It’s respectful. It’s everything YouTube comments are not. It’s a forum where ideas are exchanged compared to Twitter’s chat room of snark and one-liners.
And if the Twitterati never really showed up, it was almost better that way. It spared us from that aloof cult of celebrity that Twitter becomes if you let it.2 Be it the better threading or the longer character limit or the smaller community, or something else less tangible, the feeling for a nobody like me on App.net is that you can engage a somebody in meaningful conversation, not just yell things at them and hope they deign to reply.
I don’t want to understate this. To write the App.net story as one of corporations and APIs is to miss it completely, as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve seen App.net be a place where Christians and Muslims and Atheists can debate religion from a starting point of mutual respect, and all learn something in the process. I’ve seen App.net be a place where liberals and conservatives can speak, and listen, and find a certain fleeting common ground. I’ve seen it be a place where transgender people can find themselves and come out and be loved and valued for the amazing people that they are.
And always, always a place of civility.
Lost in all the news over the last few days is this: App.net is not an office in San Francisco. Instead it’s a small, but thriving community that’s active right now, and it is simply the finest group of people I have ever been a part of.
There is nothing else like this on the Internet. Returning to the Twitter snarkfest feels empty.
That mythical beast, The App So Great It Cracks App.net Wide Open, isn’t coming.
We’ve been waiting for our Godot for as long as I can remember. App.net, we were told and we told ourselves and we shouted to all who would listen, was not about microblogging. It was not a Twitter clone. It was social plumbing upon which almost anything could be built. Maybe microblogging was what everybody was interested in right now, but some day, something massive and great and unexpected was going to come along, built on top of this platform, and it was going to change everything.
But now… now…
If App.net was a hard bet for a mainstream developer to take before, now it’s damn near impossible. The perception a platform is dead3 is an innovation killer. Major new development here is done. Top that with the loss of the Developer Incentive Program, and the A-list Apps we have now aren’t getting updates any time soon.4
Maybe it’s dead, maybe it isn’t. But it is what it is right now. Not much is changing from here out.
At best, App.net has become a thing frozen in time.
It’s still a damn good Twitter clone.
Dalton Caldwell and Bryan Berg have said they’ll keep it running indefinitely. I know them both, a little. Full-time employees or not, I have no doubt of their ability or desire or commitment to shepherd this platform through the next few years.
Their decision to shut down (most of) the company but let the service continue strikes me as selfless and respectful of the users and developers. It’s a good omen for the future, if only a small one. I strongly suspect5 that they could have raised the money, if they’d wanted to. Kept the status quo for another year or two. They could have kept trying to force it to work, they could have tried to find a silicon-valley exit. But with money comes investors and investors beat the drum for profit loudly, quickly, and that march to profit is the death of what makes a place like App.net special. This is better.6
As a developer, let me tell you, the App.net platform really is years ahead of anyone else. As a user, let me tell you, the apps our developers have built blow anything Twitter has out of the water. Yesterday, App.net felt like a revolution.
If App.net is to be frozen in time, at least it’s to be frozen in the future. For me, sentimentalist that I am, I’d like to think it will stand for a while as a city upon a hill for social networks, shining brightly for as long as Berg and Caldwell keep the lights on, beaconing the others to try and match its community, its technology, its developers’ innovation.
Will our community shrink over time? Certainly. We’ve already seen a run-on-the-bank dash back to Twitter in the last few days.7
But there are some of us—lots of us—who will stay here, too, for as long as we can. You don’t give up on friends this good without a fight.
Maybe App.net, the for-profit company is dead. Maybe App.net, the office in San Francisco is dead. App.net, the community isn’t. Not yet, anyway.8
If someone, years from now, decides they’re sick of Twitter and wants to give App.net a try, I wouldn’t bet against them finding a small, thriving community, eager to welcome them, just like they’d find today.
And as the rest of the world spends the next few years catching up with what App.net built, who knows what will happen? It’s a long shot, certainly, but this is tech. A few years is an eternity. Whole empires have been built and then crumbled in less time.
The hardest part of this—the only part that really matters—is that these amazing, passionate, wonderful people are all out of work today. My friends have lost something they care about. That sucks. Thanks for everything, guys. I really wish it had worked out. ↩
Hint: the more you unfollow the verified accounts on Twitter, magically, the more fun it becomes. ↩
Whether or not it proves to be true. ↩
Although in truth, most of them haven’t had major updates in a while, anyway. ↩
I have no direct knowledge of this, of course. ↩
At the other end of the spectrum, they could have switched the whole thing off and left the developers completely high and dry. ↩
I’m sentimental but not naive. My Twitter client’s seen more activity these last few days, too. As a person who makes part of his living by selling things to his friends on the Internet, frankly I’ve been foolish to neglect Twitter for App.net for as long as I have. ↩
And I promise you: when it dies, if it dies, the death certificate will not be written by some tech douche on Twitter. ↩
You should probably subscribe to this RSS feed
before the gnomes get it and it's gone.