Everybody, at one time or another, has dreamed about a social networking “do-over” -- completely gutting their social networking presence to get rid of all their fake followers, annoying ads and blatant intrusions by brands into their daily lives. If anything, the “I’m quitting Facebook” or “I’m quitting Twitter” comments are becoming more and more common. That’s because there’s a growing sense that the Web’s leading players are selling users to advertisers, rather than selling products to users. No wonder App.net, the much-hyped initiative to create an ad-free social platform, was able to raise more than $800,000 from everyday Internet users in less than a month.
But can it work?
At a time when Facebook seems to have lost its mojo and Twitter appears to be aggressively pursuing paid advertising opportunities, the App.net project (they prefer to call it a movement) tapped into the popular zeitgeist at precisely the right time. More than 12,000 people have chipped in anywhere from $50 to $1,000, according to The Next Web’s Jon Russell, to help build a social platform completely free of ads. The campaign has attracted the support of some of the tech world’s leading evangelists, as well as a healthy number of "tech snobs", to borrow a term from Gawker, who don’t mind shelling out $50 per year to be part of an exclusive social experiment. The brilliance of the App.net project is the fundamental insight that any truly “social” platform should work for the users and developers — not for the advertisers.
Bold claims of building a social networking alternative, though, are nothing new. Remember two years ago, when Diaspora was the trendy social network that was going to upend Facebook? Back then, the rallying cry wasn’t “Death to advertisers!” it was “Give us back our personal privacy!”
Users were concerned that they no longer owned their own data, and that they could not easily port that data across various social platforms. So, four NYU students raised $200,000 via online donations, promised to build a new social network that was ad-free and data-friendly, and... two years later, we're still waiting for Diaspora to become a full-on technology migration. Getting to 100,000 users is nice, but getting to 1 billion users is nicer.
This well-intentioned desire to give users a chance for a “do-over” has been the inspiration for nearly every recent innovation in the social networking field. The big innovation of Google+ was Circles, the ability to sub-divide your friends into smaller groups, so that you aren’t sharing weekend exploits with your boss, or family-related matters with your weekend softball team. More recently, Foursquare did a total revamp to its social platform in order to become more of a location-based social network and less of a gaming platform. Now that mobile phones are changing how we connect with each other, Foursquare felt that most people would like their social experience to better reflect the context of their current geographic location. Indeed, the number of social networking alternatives seems to expand every couple of months.
This should sound familiar. The Social Networking War is reminiscent of the Google Search War, when competitor after competitor came after Google with knives sharpened. Each promised to do search just a little bit different, a little bit better, than Google. Some promised a better algorithm, others promised the ability to search in real-time, or to search rich content such as images and video. At the end of the day, though, Google is still the king of the search mountain.
The difficulty of unseating Google as the king of search or Facebook as the king of social networking illustrates the inevitable problem that any great idea faces in the tech world: inertia. Just as people continue to use Google for search because they don’t perceive any great value in switching, people continue to use Facebook and Twitter for social networking because that’s where their friends and family are. App.net has already proven that there is momentum and support for a social alternative that is advertising-free. Punching through the wall of inertia that accompanies any tech do-over, though, is harder than it sounds. Especially when it comes with a $50 annual subscription fee and sky-high user expectations.
What do you think: Will you sign up for app.net? Do you think it will become the next, great social network, unseating Facebook?
Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."
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