Time to get SNAASty

Apologies to Jamie Smyth for failing to credit him for the catchy portmanteau "SNAASty"!

Thought-provoking essays on ADN from Jason Irwin—Alpha Needs an Owner—and Brianna Wu—Social Media is a Human Problem, not an Engineering Problem—that I heartily recommend everyone read.

Today Dalton Caldwell, CEO and co-founder of the App.net social network, announced significant changes to the company ultimately stemming from growth issues. This is unfortunate and all, but I'm not in an eulogizing frame of mind. Let's start talking about how to turn things around.

The founding ideal of App.net (hereafter "ADN") was that the multi-sided market approach of existing social networks—especially Twitter—incentivized them to prioritize the needs of the cash side users (advertisers) over the traffic/audience side), and that a more direct model in which the audience paid for the service would yield a better alignment of values.

This is correct, but insufficient. The utility of social networking infrastructure, abstracted away from a specific application such as microblogging (Twitter) or lifestreaming (Facebook), is very difficult to articulate to the average user. It is particularly difficult to articulate without at least a few world-class experiences that benefit from the infrastructure to serve as examples. People don't purchase plumbing; they buy houses, and are thankful for hot showers.

Should the objective, then, remain to directly sell service to the user, then ADN must embrace the responsibility of making the service attractive—the plumbing contractor building out a subdivision with clubhouse pool and gym to jump start the new neighborhood.

But there is another option, and it is not necessarily incompatible with the first. ADN could literally become an infrastructure provider, in the vein of Amazon Web Services, Heroku, Microsoft Azure, etc. Its offering would be a preintegrated, standalone social network stack. ADN would serve as a central authenticator and the owner of the protocol, and each client would run a node or cluster of nodes constituting a private social network.

Why would anyone want this? Because private networks are all around us: every intranet, every online community, every comments area. And because being able to tap into a large community of existing users and their connections is very valuable.

Say I've built a system for companies to hire freelance artists, assign them to internal projects, manage the project lifetimes and give feedback on their performance. Say you've built a community for artists to maintain portfolios and interact with others, like Dribbble. Ordinarily, me integrating my service with yours would take a fair amount of work. With private networks built on the ADN infrastructure, all that would be required from a technology perspective is cross-authentication, which could even be read-only (from my side), allowing my clients to view artist portfolios and then rate them on completion, but with the ratings staying on my side of the fence (since they're data generated in my private network).

Now imagine that ADN offers integration with the core Alpha stream to each private network, so your artist portfolio service can post excerpts to a user's Alpha stream for her usual followers to comment on, as well as simplify the sign-up process for your service (since they already have Alpha accounts). For my hypothetical service, that's not as valuable, but that's OK.

Yes, ADN has other problems, like it's name. "App.net" is simply not a good name. Yes, it needs to improve its communications and messaging. Yes, it needs to develop superior first-party applications to demonstrate the very best of the network on the major platforms. Those are corrective measures—necessary, but not sufficient to redefine the company. What we need here is an expanded vision for where the company goes next.

There's an air of despair around ADN right now that disappoints me. People are acting like failure of a company's first business model is a death sentence, like the collapse of a podcast aggregation/syndication startup called Odeo didn't give birth to a little service called Twitter.

Mount up. We have work to do.