App.net announced Thursday that its paying users can invite friends to a trial period of the service in which the first month is free. The number of invitations is limited at first. Now people who interested in an ad-free, community-funded social Web infrastructure can try before they buy.
Existing users who are on a yearly plan have "a small number" of invitations in their accounts (click here to view your invitations). The invitation goes out by email, and the recipient must click a link in that message to begin the sign-up process.
Trial users do have to enter a credit card, which will discourage frivolous sign-ups. The card will not be charged during the first month, and users can stop payment and cancel their account at any time through their account settings. Still, that's a barrier that might cause many interested people to hesitate.
What's App.net, And Why Is That Its Name?
App.net is what founder Dalton Caldwell likes to call "social infrastructure." Like Twitter, it's a service for sending short Web messages, but the business model is completely different. Users pay to access it and have it host their name, profile and payment information, and it provides the pipes — and business incentives — for software developers to build all kinds of apps on it. It has the blandest possible name because it wants to be thought of as a utility company; the exciting things are the APPs on the NETwork, get it?
App.net users pay $36 per year (or $5 per month), and developers pay $100 per year for access to the app-making tools. Developers can make money by selling apps on the various app marketplaces, and they also get meritocratic bonuses from App.net itself based on how much users like them.
It all creates a virtuous cycle in which people get to pick the communication software that suits them, developers compete to build the best apps, and App.net develops the underlying features and keeps the messages flowing. As Twitter cracks down on the ways software developers can build on the experience, App.net has people happily hacking on social software again.
What's Wrong With Facebook And Twitter?
App.net is an idea for a world in which for-profit advertising companies — Facebook, Twitter, Google — are not also verbs that mean "to communicate." We've been led to believe that Facebook and Twitter are media in themselves, that they're synonymous with what we use them for: talking to each other. But that would be like calling TV "Fox News" or the Internet "Comcast."
Those services have been good enough for most people, but they're making themselves worse and worse in order to pay the bills. Ads interrupt your conversations, the rules of what's private and what's public constantly change, and features we use all the time are moved around to increase "engagement" and other things only advertisers care about. Even Twitter, which started off as a playground for developers making delightful and powerful new user experiences, decided to shut all that down and be an ad company instead.
If you don't think you'd ever pay for a social Web service, indulge me in this thought exercise:
What is it worth to you to have an online identity you can use for communication you can control, but which you don't have to maintain yourself, on your own servers? What is it worth to network and communicate the way we've learned to do, but to do so on a service you can leave, no-questions-asked, whenever you want and bring your data with you? What is it worth to you to have a choice over how the apps you use to communicate look and work? Is it worth $3 per month? Well, if you're not sure, now you can try for a month and see.
What You Get When You Join
The App.net experiment is hard to understand from the outside, so now you have a chance to check it out risk-free. And for people who are active on the service, key friends who haven't joined are the biggest missing piece. The gift of a free month of service can help remedy both problems, and it could catalyze another burst of growth for App.net.
The launch of Netbot on October 3 drove a huge bump in activity on App.net as tech people saw big-time app developers like Tapbots committing to the App.net platform. According to Caldwell, and in my own experience, that activity level has been maintained.
There's the germ of a real community on App.net of people who care about the value of online social networking but want it to work differently than the ad-riddled, anti-privacy media silos that dominated the last decade.
There are tons of great apps, too. I'm a die-hard Tweetbot user on Twitter, and though I love the familiarity of Netbot, I'm now using Felix on my phone, while still using Netbot for iPad. On my Android devices, I'm using Dash, which is first-rate. On the Mac, my preferred client is Wedge, which is still in beta, but it's had some great updates lately. There are Windows and Linux clients, too. There's an official directory keeping track of all the clients on all platforms.
There are two things missing from App.net right now. One is private messaging, which is almost here, and App.net has put out a fascinating podcast about how it's going to work. The other is more users. There are more than 20,000 people on App.net, enough to keep me coming back every day, and it's almost at the point where I can start leaving other, noisier networks behind. More people using the service will make all the difference.
Check out my 30-minute interview with Dalton Caldwell about the future of App.net: