Can an ad-free Twitter replace the original?

A California entrepreneur is building a new paid service that aims to elevate the quality of conversation.

By TheWeek.com Aug 15, 2012 11:33AM

© Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty ImagesReady for a better Twitter? Dalton Caldwell, a San Francisco entrepreneur, is trying to build just that.


App.net looks a lot like the original but with a few key differences. The service features zero advertising, and users are allowed to drone on a bit more, as Twitter's 140-character limit has been expanded to 256. What's more, the service is completely open, meaning third-party developers are free to build new services on top of it.


Caldwell, whose resume includes music site iMeem and the Instagram-like Picplz, originally floated his idea in a blog post called "What Twitter Could Have Been," which outlined his disappointment with Twitter's attitude toward outside developers and the obtrusive presence of sponsored tweets.


He's funding App.net with a Kickstarter-like donations page, offering new users the handle of their choosing for $50 a pop -- and his plan seems to be working. Though he originally hoped to raise $500,000 by Aug. 15, App.net has already acquired 12,000 enthusiastic backers, amassing over $800,000 in initial funding. 


Could a minimalist, ad-free Twitter be the next big thing?


It's incredibly promising: "I still find Twitter rewarding, but the concept of App.net appeals," says Harry McCracken at Time. A community built around people willing to pay "can keep the focus on users rather than trying to please advertisers," theoretically elevating the level of discourse. App.net reminds me of BIX, one of the best social networks I ever joined (in 1988). It cost $99 a year and was a dial-up, text-only creation. Yet "the quality of discussion was very, very high." If App.net approximates BIX, "I'd be thrilled."


App.net doesn't have a chance: "I hate to be the spoil-sport," but App.net is better as an idea than a reality, says MG Siegler at Massive Greatness. Its problem is twofold: First, Twitter already exists. Second, a user-supported service can never reach the scale of a free service like Twitter and so will never get a chance to challenge Twitter. Take a look at Google's (GOOG) Google+, which is trying to be Facebook (FB) when Facebook already exists. "App.net looks like the hero right now only because it hasn't had the opportunity to become the villain. And it probably never will."


App.net wants to be bigger than Twitter: App.net wants to be more than just an app or a Twitter alternative, says Mathew Ingram at GigaOm. It wants to be the next email. Of course, users can already send an email to anyone else on the internet using a variety of services, like Gmail or CompuServe. App.net doesn't want to simply be one of those services. It wants its form of short-burst communication to be the Web's go-to.


Good luck.


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