There was a time when people thought App.net could dethrone Twitter as the king of microblogging. But that time has passed, and with fewer people than ever renewing their subscriptions to the service, App.net's co-founders announced plans to completely shut down the platform on March 14.
App.net debuted in July 2012 with the promise of reducing social networking's reliance on advertisements. Instead of collecting user data to sell off to the highest bidders, like Facebook and Twitter and basically every other major platform, the site depended on subscriptions to remain up and running. The service would also embrace third-party developers instead of ignoring them like Facebook or having the same love-hate relationship as Twitter.
That approach worked for a while. More than 11,000 people contributed more than $750,000 to the project. Yet things changed over the years: App.net switched to a freemium model in February 2013, introduced Broadcast to let other developers send push notifications via its mobile apps in November 2013, and then launched Backer to help its users crowdfund their projects in January 2014. It went from "premium Twitter" to multi-headed beast.
App.net went into maintenance mode--which meant it still functioned but wouldn't push out any feature updates--in May 2014. The company said the service would continue to operate for as long as its subscription revenues covered the costs of doing so and hoped that it would later return to active development. That never happened. Instead, as the company explained in the blog post announcing its closing, the site became unsustainable.
Ultimately, we failed to overcome the chicken-and-egg issue between application developers and user adoption of those applications. We envisioned a pool of differentiated, fast-growing third-party applications would sustain the numbers needed to make the business work. Our initial developer adoption exceeded expectations, but that initial excitement didn’t ultimately translate into a big enough pool of customers for those developers. This was a foreseeable risk, but one we felt was worth taking.
It almost seems like App.net debuted a little too early. Much of the hype for the service came before Edward Snowden's revelation of mass surveillance programs renewed public interest in defending private data. The last few years have seen major social networking tools adopt end-to-end encryption, search for ways to combat trolls who use personal information to attack their victims, and work to convince people their data is responsibly handled.
Those efforts are often unsuccessful. Companies like WhatsApp undermine the end-to-end encryption used to protect their users, Twitter is still notorious for the vitriol found on its platform, and Facebook was found to be purchasing user data and sharing information with other companies. At least some of those problems--especially those found on Twitter and Facebook--could be addressed with a premium network that doesn't rely on ads.
Yet here we have App.net on the brink of death. The platform never changed the social networking status quo, but it came closer to doing so than many others, at least for a while.