Remember today: 14 August 2012. Today might just be the day when the big four social networks started to lose their control over sharing content on the internet, when the micro-blogosphere started to open up ... when you heard about App.net and everything changed.
What it takes to build a social network
It takes a lot to build a social network to compete with a massive global platform like Twitter and a whole lot more – commercially and socially – to make a dent in its market share.
But Twitter may have actually precipitated its own decline by frightening developers like me into supporting the competition and into ensuring that our apps – like my social stock exchange twiDAQ – could be switched over to a different network if the worst happens.
Biting that hand that feeds
Anyone who develops Twitter apps will be aware of Twitter’s recent announcement that it is clamping down on “how the Twitter API is used”, bringing in “stricter guidelines” that it will more “thoroughly enforce”.
And anyone who thinks the company is not serious about protecting this new, more “consistent experience” only needs to ask themselves why Twitter cut its API ties with LinkedIn in June and with Instagram last month.
But Twitter is now biting off the hand that feeds.
The importance of a two-way API
As Google+ demonstrates, having lots of users does not a social network make. Despite Google’s best efforts, Google+ is a ghost town, in large part due to the one-sidedness of its API, which doesn’t yet allow third-party apps to push content into the network.
What makes a social network work isn’t just its users, but the enthusiasm of an army of third-party developers, on hand to build the tools to enable those users to consume – and more importantly, to create – content in the way they choose.
A new hope
App.net – a brand-new social network funded by subscriptions, not advertising, and built with a commitment to an open API – has, I believe, all the right ideas about how to engage this pivotal early-adopter developer audience from which a vibrant community can grow.
In just 31 days, App.net has raised over $800,000 from developers who, like me, would like to see a short-message social networking platform built and funded with API developers and their use cases at the heart of its mission statement. It already boasts a vibrant and engaged community – not to mention a growing list of third-party apps, despite the platform and API itself being only a few days old.
One of those apps is Buffer, an awesome tool for sharing social media data. Before App.net has even officially launched, Buffer is amongst dozens of third-party applications, mobile clients and browser extensions allowing you to engage with the service in some way other than going to the App.net website.
I believe that Buffer is one of those apps that holds the key to the paradigm shift in user behaviour that is about to take place, and which makes App.net’s launch so important.
The critical role of third-party apps
If you don’t know Buffer, it's a great, simple tool for creating and auto-scheduling posts. Better still, it works with more than one social network. As founder Joel Gascoigne explains:
“We started just with Twitter, but we've always also had a great focus on listening to users so we've expanded to support Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and App.net. People are becoming comfortable visiting multiple networks."
What is so significant about Buffer is that it has completely obviated Twitter’s decision to cut off LinkedIn. I simply added LinkedIn to my Buffer account. I still post to LinkedIn, something I wouldn't otherwise have done, and I’m going around Twitter in order to do that.
Twitter loses out here, not LinkedIn.
Yesterday I added App.net to my Buffer account and now there’s nothing important that I post to Twitter or Facebook that I don’t also post to LinkedIn and App.net too. For those who value the articles and links I post, there is now no benefit following me on Twitter over following me at App.net.
“The [App.net] proposition is truly exciting for many, many people: a platform where the focus is 100% on the experience,” Joel continues. “That's why people have backed App.net and they've gone far beyond their [funding] target.”
Building instant volume
Now consider that Buffer is responsible for over 250,000 folk creating 130,000 posts a day. For App.net, this is a source of real, valuable, curated content on which to build its network almost immediately. Already 200 Buffer users like me have added their App.net accounts: a significant portion of the App.net community.
But Buffer is just one app. There are dozens of others in development. Dalton Caldwell confirmed to me yesterday that the App.net team is also working on an IFTTT integration, which will hugely increase the potential of the platform.
So imagine what happens when your favourite non-Twitter-owned iPhone Twitter app adds App.net integration. Or you find that your preferred sharing widget for your blog also includes support for App.net – not to mention that bit of code you use to add a Twitter feed to your site. Suddenly the game has changed.
Most importantly of all: what happens to Twitter when the apps you use on your phone or desktop start to completely mask the channel through which the message is being delivered. How does Twitter commercialise its experience then?
The future role of networks
If you think Twitter is too big to fail, ask yourself this: when was the last time you considered what network your friend was on when you sent them a text message?
Social networks are changing. The apps growing up around them – like Buffer and twiDAQ – will have to evolve to be platform-agnostic and survive the loss of a single channel.
App.net may never make it to Twitter or Facebook’s scale. It may not even last the night. But what it has already done is to shift Twitter’s position in the market to ‘just another message delivery platform’ – and one that, I predict, will soon be one of a great many.
You can read Jim Morrison's full interview with Joel Gascoigne on the Deep Blue Sky blog.