Twitter and Facebook are the big two when it comes to social networks as they hold the largest number of users. But as for profit companies, they also wield complete control over their technologies. They make the rules, and they change the rules when they see fit. Twitter just recently announced drastic changes to it’s API that has sent developers into a bit of a tailspin. Open source alternatives to the big two have been proposed before, most recently Diaspora, a Facebook alternative. None of these alternatives have taken any kind of root outside of the geek community.
Now, a new effort has emerged with a different take. The terribly named App.net is a Twitter replacement with open technology, but it comes at a price, literally. You can join App.net as a member for $50/yr or as a developer for $100/yr. What this buys you is access to a clean system with no advertising and a promise that users and developers come first rather than advertisers. By making this a paid service, App.net has cut out the monetary motivations they believe have led services like Twitter off track.
Of course the big question is will anyone actually pay for what they could otherwise get for free? Will anyone care? As usual, there is a segment of the geek and developer community that loves it and is very excited. But geek concerns are generally not the concerns of the general public. The changes to the API that have so infuriated Twitter developers I just don’t think matter in the long run to the mass of people using Twitter. Outside of the API changes, Twitter has been pretty smooth with their current advertising integration into Twitter. I find it to be innocuous and I hardly ever notice. Maybe that isn’t such a good thing for advertisers, but you’re always riding that line between satisfying your advertisers and annoying your users.
As angry as some were over Facebook and their various privacy issues, Diaspora did not go anywhere. People were angry, but not so much that they left Facebook. The problem is social networks work on critical mass. You will stay where all your friends are, so unless someone could somehow engineer a massive, everyone all at once move to another network, it’s not going to happen. Twitter and Facebook are here for the long term as the big two generalized social networks. What I do think you will see is more niche networks like Pinterest or Etsy and the like. And I believe it’s in these niche networks, with their more targeted demographics, that companies will find great opportunities to commune with potential customers. And if advertising can stop being advertising and start being meaningful engagement, people won’t ever need to pay to avoid it.