The overwhelmingly positive response to my blogpost, What Twitter could have been has been inspiring. The post has generated 80K pageviews thus far. Without really meaning to, I touched a nerve.
The responses to my post largely fell into two camps. One group is of the belief that a non-commercial, open source, open standards federation of real-time protocols is the solution. The opposing group has pointed out that these decentralized efforts never work out, and the API-focused service I wish existed is the fevered dream of navel-gazing geeks. No, these people say, we must swallow our bitter ad-supported medicine… it’s the only way.
I think there is another option.
A relevant story
My first programming job was at a company which was then called VA Software, working on a product called SourceForge. At that time, If you wanted to launch, manage, collaborate on and distribute an Open Source project, you used SourceForge. The problem was, SourceForge was an ad-ridden, user-hostile piece of crap. Getting anything done required several extraneous pageviews & clicks. The site was designed to squeeze every last advertising penny out of you. I can’t blame management for trying to generate more revenue…. two months into my job there, 25% of the company was laid off.
There was much public hand-wringing over the crappiness of the SourceForge user experience. There were two camps in these debates: those that wanted to build an open source, decentralized version of SourceForge (which someone did), and those that pointed out it was a free service, and how dare anyone complain about the user & developer-hostile aspects of the experience. Tolerating the bad behavior of SourceForge “is a necessary evil”, the apologists would say, “otherwise the service we all depend on might go away.” Does any of this sound familiar?
Years later a site called Github came out. It was good. They had no advertising, but charged money for certain features. They quickly became profitable because the service was so good and so important, people were willing to pay. Github has become a much-loved brand and service, and many would agree that it is a key piece of infrastructure in the technical renaissance we are currently experiencing. Github is apparently profitable, and it sounds like the people that work there spend their time trying to make the best service possible, as opposed to spending their time trying to extract additional pennies out of their users.
Advertising is not the Only Way
Github and SourceForge were both based on providing a hosting platform + collaborative services built upon Open Source tools and documented, open protocols. (Git & CVS respectively). Because they are open source, anyone is free to use CVS/Git without having to adopt the centralized services offered by for-profit companies. But I deeply believe having for-profit, centralized companies innovating and operating these services is a Very Good Thing. Additionally, I think it’s clear that a paid, profitable organization as the steward of the service is far superior to its ad-supported counterpart.
It’s also worth noting that Github succeeded not because the SourceForge team wasn’t exceptionally smart and talented, and not because they didn’t see or understand the user-hostile moves they were making. SourceForge’s lousiness was not because venture capital, or centralization is inherently evil. No, I think the takeaway here is that the services provided by SourceForge/Github are too important to its users to be ad-supported.
Contemplate for a moment how scary a theoretical purely ad-supported Dropbox would be. I can easily imagine the overly-cheerful corporate blogpost explaining why placing ads in my personal documents, or selling the file-listing of my music collection to the music industry, or shutting down IFTTT API access is “important to the health and welfare of the community.” I happily pay to avoid that nightmare scenario, wouldn’t you?
The advertising-supported monoculture
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” - Jeff Hammerbacher, fmr. Manager of Facebook Data Team, founder of Cloudera
As consumers, we are currently given the choice between Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. Oh, and there are also some startups with hand-wavy future advertising business models. All of these services are essentially in the same business: vying for the opportunity to sell you/your clickstream to advertisers.
Why isn’t there an opportunity to pay money to get an ad-free feed from a company where the product is something you pay for, not, well, you. To be clear: I’m glad there are ad-supported options, but why does that seem like the only option? For example, I have the option of buying a Mac if I don’t want to buy a crapware-infested PC, right? I have no interest in completely opting-out of the social web. But please, I want a real alternative to advertising hell… I would gladly pay for a service that treats me better.
The disappointment of Web 2.0
I was a part of the Web2.0 movement. I have attended Foo Camp. I attended Bar Camp. I attended Tag Camp. A full-page picture of me was included in a 2006 Newsweek cover story about Web2.0. One session at Foo Camp this year felt like a wake for Web2.0. We discussed the progression: a free service with a vague business model captures the hearts and minds of a large user base, and becomes vitally important. Because the hosting bills and payroll balloon as the service grows, founders are left with a very difficult decision to make. Sell the company? Cram the site full of ads? Keep raising money to delay having to deal with this issue as long as possible?
How do I dare to call all of this out? Well… because I was founder/CEO of one of the huge Web2.0 disappointments. I ran a company called imeem, which users loved, but which I was unable to keep going because I couldn’t turn a profit. I raised >$50MM for that company, had 100 employees, and managed to sell $2MM of advertising per month at peak. There is not a day that passes that I am not filled with remorse and regret for all of the users (and employees) that I let down. I’m sorry.
After imeem, I created a photosharing service called picplz, and made monetization a first-class focus. Fairly early on I gave up and spun that product off, one reason being that it became clear to me that the space was following the same old Web2.0 cycle. If I am honest with myself, I just don’t have the will to ever play that particular game again. Running a service that is important to people with some sort of hand-wavy platitudes about someday launching a “new form of advertising” is not OK. It’s not fair to users, it’s not fair to employees, and we should all know better. This all boils down to a fundamental issue: if an online service doesn’t have the trust of its users and developers, then what does it have?
What I have been building at App.net
I have been working on a service called App.net for the past year. App.net is a paid service for mobile application developers. In addition to the publicly available App.net developer tools, we have been spending the majority of our engineering resources the past 8 months building a “secret project”.
This “secret project” consists of a consumer-facing iOS app & service. During this development process, we have spent a great deal of time thinking about realtime feeds, developer APIs, and creating a service that we enjoy using. It’s also worth mentioning that this iOS is the highest-quality piece of software my team has ever built. We have learned a lot of native app development lessons the hard way… but tough lessons ultimately yield fantastic software.
And now, my audacious proposal
I believe so deeply in the importance of having a financially sustainable realtime feed API & service that I am going to refocus App.net to become exactly that. I have the experience, vision, infrastructure and team to do it. Additionally, we already have much of this built: a polished native iOS app, a robust technical infrastructure currently capable of handing ~200MM API calls per day with no code changes, and a developer-facing API provisioning, documentation and analytics system. This isn’t vaporware.
To manifest this grand vision, we are officially launching a Kickstarter-esque campaign. We will only accept money for this financially sustainable, ad-free service if we hit what I believe is critical mass. I am defining minimum critical mass as $500,000, which is roughly equivalent to ~10,000 backers.
Are 10,000 backers really a critical mass? I think so. Although Paul Graham is specifically describing a hypothetical new search engine rather than a new realtime feed service/API in this inspiring blogpost, his assertions about the power of 10,000 committed users are highly relevant:
The way to win here is to build the search engine all the hackers use. A search engine whose users consisted of the top 10,000 hackers and no one else would be in a very powerful position despite its small size, just as Google was when it was that size.
Since anyone capable of starting this company is one of those 10,000 hackers, the route is straightforward: make the search engine you yourself want. Feel free to make it excessively hackerish. Anything that gets you those 10,000 users is ipso facto good.
Many people will criticize me, my proposal, my past failures, my motivations. Fair enough. But I care too much, and think this is too important to run the risk of not trying. I knowingly risk a huge public failure because I truly, sincerely believe in this project.
You, the people that read my blog, tweet my posts, and comment on Hacker News have fired me up so much about this proposed service that I have had trouble sleeping. Thank you for inspiring me. I know in my gut this proposal can and should succeed, but I need your help. Please help me manifest the service that we wish existed.
Concrete details about this proposal, and how to back it, are here.