For those of you who still have no idea what App.net (or ADN, short for ‘App Dot Net’) is, head over to its website, where you’ll find a very good brief description: App.net Is an Ad-Free Social Network — It’s your real-time feed, a home for meaningful conversation, where you control your data. Find the apps you love and make App.net your own. Connect, play, and discover. Another, much less fair, description I’ve heard is that App.net is a Twitter clone, only you pay for it instead of it being free. Those who believe this should really read the 7 core values on App.net’s homepage to better understand how the similarities between App.net and Twitter are merely superficial — both platforms feature short status updates and both platforms use the same interaction paradigm among their users (@replies, #hashtags, etc.), for example — but their underlying models couldn’t be more different. We are selling our product, NOT our users, claim App.net’s founders on the homepage, and this is probably the most important reason why I was attracted by App.net in the first place.
Admittedly, when Dalton Caldwell announced his audacious proposal, I was intrigued but also a bit sceptical about the success of his App.net project. I wanted to be one of the initial backers, but at the time I was experiencing a rather disastrous financial phase, so I had to take a sort of ‘wait and see’ position. When the project took off I was genuinely happy for everybody involved, and eventually joined in.
My first days on App.net were both very similar and subtly different from my first days on Twitter. As when I started with Twitter, I looked for people I knew, started following them, looked for clients to use on my Mac, iPhone and iPad, and began posting and interacting. The differences are more interesting, though.
Firstly, when I moved my first steps in Twitter, back in March 2008, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Twitter was already 2 years old and a big social network at the time (I’m user No. 14,082,976), and I joined pretty much out of curiosity and because a few people I know and trust were already using it and were praising its coolness + usefulness. But it took time for me to get the hang of it. What catches most Twitter novices unprepared is the apparent lack of ‘reward’: they tentatively post some tweets, or maybe reach out to some acquaintances or some well-known Internet figures, and when they don’t get any response or acknowledgement, they start thinking What am I doing here? What’s the point of this? It’s exactly what happened to me at first. I had to leave for a while, rethink the approach, observe more, re-set the expectations, and then things got better.
A breath of fresh air
With App.net, there have been no ‘insertion’ issues at all. Obvious, you’ll say, if it works like Twitter and you’ve been an active Twitter user for more than four years, you’re surely well trained for this. It’s true, but things have been going quite smoothly also because App.net is a different place. With App.net, I have noticed how its core values and fundamental principles also shape the way people use it and behave in it.
One unexpected thing that happened just a few days after I joined and started posting/interacting was the amount of strangers who were responding to my posts and following me. I’m not talking big numbers here — I’m not a ‘celebrity’ — but still, when I joined App.net I basically looked for a bunch of people I already knew on Twitter, added them, they added me back, and really, at that point (3 days in) I was expecting just a few interactions with them, nothing more. And then it hit me: one thing I found myself doing more often than not (and probably what these strangers interacting with me were doing as well) was reading the Global timeline, something that never made sense on Twitter because of the sheer amount of its users. But on App.net, a much smaller community, the pace is still slow and manageable. That, and the fact that another (good) thing you can do in App.net is to show mentions directed at users you don’t follow. Which was possible on Twitter, too, before they decided to break how replies worked. Thanks to these factors (small community, manageable Global timeline, ability to see whom those you follow are interacting with), discovering and getting to know new people on App.net is easier.
Social network? More like community, actually
But what really stands out, for me, is the atmosphere. So far, it’s probably what I like most of App.net. First of all there’s that different pace I was mentioning before. The feeling is of a quieter place than Twitter, and not only because it’s a much smaller place. People seem more relaxed, friendlier, more willing to engage in long conversations and more willing to include you if you join in a conversation long after it’s started. With Twitter, I think social network; with App.net, I think community. This is the core difference, in my opinion. Two main things drive people towards this behaviour, I believe: the paid membership model, intertwined with ‘the cause’. An App.net member may be a stranger to you, but you’re both on App.net because you both have decided to pay for a better online social experience and because — explicitly or not — you both agree to ‘the cause’, i.e. the set of core values on which the founders chose to build and develop App.net.
So, when someone starts interacting with you out of the blue, you don’t tend to think Who the hell are you? (as it may happen on Twitter). Instead, you feel like you just moved out of the big city, to a smaller town, and you’re surrounded by friendly neighbours who have come here for the same reasons: to escape the urban alienation, so to speak. Maybe it’s just how I feel about it, but I have the distinct impression that App.net ‘citizens’ see one another under a different light than Twitter users. There’s this ‘let’s build a better place together’ feeling that is a refreshing change from the somewhat jaded atmosphere on Twitter. It leads to a better, more constructive dialogue, not just passing exchanges or quips.
Then there’s a technical detail that makes for deeper, clearer conversations: a post on App.net has a limit of 256 characters, not 140. Perhaps it doesn’t look much at first glance, but you have no idea of the difference it makes to have 116 more characters at your disposal. You feel less constrained, and often you can explain better what you think or what you’ve observed. I think this has been a great design choice for App.net.
Another positive effect of App.net’s paid model is that having to pay, even if it’s as little as $5 per month, is proving to be a rather effective method to keep spam and ‘bot’ accounts at bay, two of the most irritating things I notice on Twitter as a user. So far, I have 29 followers, but they’re all ‘real’ people, not brands or spammers or bots that started following me because I tweeted certain keywords like ‘ebook’, ‘Mac OS X’, ‘iPhone’, ‘translation’, ‘writing’, etc. This helps in making things a lot more relaxed overall.
What about Twitter now?
Since I joined App.net, a few people have asked me whether I’m planning to leave Twitter or not. I have some friends who are positively fed up of Twitter and have gone App.net-only since day one. I really dislike the direction Twitter has taken in recent times, how it has treated third-party developers, how implicitly treats its users, how it’s ruining what both developers and early adopters have made for it and with it. I have always experienced Twitter through the filter of a third-party client (Twitterrific), though, so I can’t really say that my experience interacting with the people I follow and my followers has worsened. So I think I’ll stay both on Twitter and App.net for a while, but the more Twitter keeps messing things up with users and developers, the more I’ll be willing to migrate to App.net completely, using my Twitter account just for announcing new posts in my blogs, and for replying to comments, keeping the interaction to a minimum.