App.net's crowdfunders: Taken for a ride?

At least 10,000 people believe in App.net's vision of a messaging platform for Web apps -- but it's unclear whether those people will be peers or sharecroppers

Last week App.net reached the milestone of 10,000 users who signed up for a new -- mostly yet to be written -- social network that looks like an early reimplementation of Twitter. Signing up people to claim user names on an vaporware alpha Web service may not seem surprising or novel, but this time there's a difference: Everyone who signed up for App.net paid $50 for the privilege.

While App.net looks like a clone of Twitter, as GigaOm points out, the current alpha service is best considered a test case. The real goal of App.net is apparently to provide an open messaging bus for applications to share data on a CB-radio-like basis, with public broadcasts on an infinite number of public channels. This "digital CB" has many possible applications; Twitter-like microblogging is but one. App.net is intended to be a platform.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bill Snyder decries Twitter's fake followers and their negative impact on the whole system. | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

Paying in advance for something that sounds cool is not unusual any more in the age of Kickstarter. In the case where the donation is just an advance purchase of a physical product, that's a good way to approach the launch of new ideas. For example, I rather like the Coffee Joulies I bought on Kickstarter; I also like the idea that my advance purchase gave young entrepreneurs a break. It was a win-win, with me getting an interesting product and them getting the seed money to start production without having to give away a stake in their business to a VC (not to mention Kickstarter earning its cut of the deal).

$50 will get you bus fare

App.net has used the same crowdfunding approach, but it's not the same kind of project. While superficially similar -- there's an offer of immediate use of its Twitter-clone service and reservation of the user ID of your choice -- it's much more speculative. It's crowdsourcing the seed capital for a new venture, crowdsourcing the design, crowdsourcing the testing, and crowdsourcing most of the software that interacts with the venture, all without actually giving anyone but the founder a true stake in the outcome.

I find this really surprising. At the very least, there should be concrete guarantees that the resulting service will be a community of peers. But the one thing conspicuously absent from App.net is any concept of a true community of peers. App.net talks frequently about "third-party developers" -- even proposing ways of sharing its future wealth with them -- but in a world of true peers, there are no third parties, only first and second parties. The only way to offer actual concrete guarantees of a community of peers is to embrace the concepts of software freedom and create an open source project.

The guy behind App.net, Dalton Caldwell, says on his website he "does things the hard way." Caldwell has built a straw man describing what Twitter is about, then scathingly ridiculed it, over and over. All the same, he appears to be reinventing an existing, open source wheel.

Another Twitter "clone" is Identi.ca, built by free culture visionary Evan Prodromou. Identi.ca is actually a "sample app" itself, for the highly capable StatusNet software, an infrastructure that can be used to build a wide range of Web applications. In fact, the vision Caldwell is explaining for App.net looks very much like StatusNet, except for a crucial difference.

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