App.net and the future of social networks.

A few weeks ago, I backed a Kickstarter-ish project called App.net. It’s essentially a Twitter clone, but one with a very clear business model: App.net will charge for membership. I gave them $50 because I’m interested to see if it can work, as are many of the early adopters, techies and application developers who helped make Twitter what it is today. Because as Twitter continues to search for its own business model, it’s becoming clear (as I’ve written before) that its interests as a company are diverging from those of its users.

A couple days before the end of it’s campaign, App.net was actually in danger of not meeting its $500,000 funding goal. Then Twitter posted some new guidelines for what kinds of applications it will allow people to create and use to interact with their accounts. With those changes, the writing was on the wall, and App.net saw a stampede of signups. It ended up raising more than $700,000.

You can read Twitter’s whole blog post here, a sad example of marketing-speak, and language used to obscure rather than illuminate. The upshot is that Twitter, the company, wants everyone to use their website, or their own apps, rather than independent apps that many people know and love, like Twitterific, which, incidentally, actually coined the term “tweet.”

A lot of innovation has come from independent developers, in fact– Twitter’s own official client is based on an app called Tweetie– but they’re giving that up in order to create value for their customers. Unfortunately, those customers aren’t the millions of Twitter users, but the advertisers who want to sell their products to us.

What does this mean for nonprofits? On one hand, not much. Nonprofits use services like Twitter and Facebook because that’s where the people are. Upstarts like App.net aren’t useful to them because they haven’t reached critical mass– and charging $50 a year for an account, it’s not clear that they ever will.

On the other hand, new services like App.net may be the leading edge of a shift in social networking– away from massive advertising-supported networks like Facebook and Twitter where the product they’re selling is your attention, and toward smaller, more direct and personal networks and applications, like Path or Glassboard. Some of these startups are even turning away from growth-first, underpants gnome business plans towards clearer transactional models where they’re looking to make money from day one. Ultimately, that’s better for consumers, if not for advertisers and venture capitalists.

I don’t mean to overstate my case. The trend I’m talking about is still small in comparison to the massive networks that Facebook and Twitter have created by offering free accounts, though it does involve many of the early adopters and innovators who made those networks fun to be a part of in the first place. It’s not time to delete your Facebook page. It might never be time for that.

But nonprofit communicators should be aware of these changes, and should think carefully about what channels work best for reaching your key audiences. Networks like App.net or applications like Glassboard might never be right for reaching vast new audiences for your work, but they could be just the ticket for shaping a tighter, more engaged network of supporters.

And wasn’t that the real promise of social networks in the first place?

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