The response to Caldwell’s post was enormous, and he followed it up with two more. One blasted Facebook for trying to intimidate him into selling his business, which was based in part on Facebook’s platform. In that post, he accused Facebook of being beholden to “financial motivations that are not in line with users and developers.”
His other post announced the launch of a new project: a social-media platform called App.net that would aim to become what Twitter or Facebook might have been if they hadn’t gone the advertising route. App.net, he said, would cost $50 to join, but it would be ad-free and entirely focused on users and third-party developers rather than advertisers. In short, it would be Facebook and Twitter in a parallel universe in which good things on the Internet don’t come for free.
The consensus in Silicon Valley is that App.net is doomed. The thinking is that a social network has to connect users and developers with as many people as possible. Most of us today use Facebook not because we necessarily love its design, but because all of our friends are on it. Why would we pay to join some ghost town?
Caldwell told me he’s well aware that App.net might fail. But in its first test, at least, it has succeeded. Caldwell set himself a goal of bringing in $500,000 in user sign-up fees by Monday, Aug. 13. He beat that target, raising $803,000 from 12,000 users.
Critics have ridiculed the notion that App.net could ever rival Twitter, with its 200 million active users, let alone Facebook, which boasts 800 million. Caldwell says that isn’t his goal—not anytime soon, at least. Instead, he’s looking to model the service on something like GitHub, a popular and well-respected online hosting service for software developers. Like GitHub, he says, App.net will cater more to power users than to the masses. And it will focus at least as much on providing a platform for developers to build their own social-media apps as it will on attracting users.
Even in its pursuit of this modest goal, App.net may indeed be doomed—not because the concept is fundamentally flawed, but because it’s arriving too early. A few far-sighted developers like Caldwell may be growing disenchanted with Facebook and Twitter, but for most people, the ads and privacy intrusions have been at most a minor nuisance—not enough to send them fleeing en masse to a $50 alternative.
That’s because, in a world where Google is among the most valuable companies in the world, investors still have enough faith in the ad-supported business model that they haven’t pressured Facebook and Twitter for immediate returns. As such, those firms have some time to find a way to turn their users into a magic money tree without scaring them away. And perhaps they’ll pull it off. If so, we should rejoice: The free Internet is a wonderful thing, provided the price isn’t our privacy and sanity. If they fail, though, the Web may end up looking a lot like App.net.