The ire of the geek community seems pretty fired up over the news that Twitter is reigning in their brand and restricting how third party developers interact with the service. While the tech community is nothing if not an expert at announcing the premature death of a product, it is starting to look like the writing is on the wall: that Twitter, while still far from being useless, is trending in the direction of a more closed technology where control follows a traditional top-down approach, and advertising/marketing tie-ins will lead to continued revenue and growth.
Suffice to say, it is slowly becoming un-cherished by the same audience that was so enthusiastic at it's outset. Enter the crowd-funded App.net, a Twitter-like service founded under the idea that by having users pay for the service, we can avoid this nasty predicament of having to cater toward advertisers or alternate revenue streams. It also makes the implicit promise that if people need to pony up cash to use the service, it will keep out the riff-raff (read: Bieber fans and fake PR accounts).
Right now, the service is in still in it's alpha phase, and it costs $50 to reserve your username and join. Because I can't seem to tell my brain that crowd-funding is a light form of gambling, I spent the cash and dived in with my fancy three-letter handle: @bry.
It's like IRC, without a channel topic
My first thought was: Geeks. Geeks Everywhere. And it's true. The only people who really give an ounce of care about App.net at this point are geeks. Mostly programmers, designers and tech people. This is the same crowd that embraced Twitter at it's birth. And App.net bears a lot in common with early Twitter - the conversation is global as replies aren't scoped to followers. In this way it resembles a loosely structured chat room, much like IRC (without the fear of getting kick-banned for asking the wrong question). Of course, there is no central focus or topic, but it's a sure bet the more focused your post, the better chance someone will respond to it and a conversation will start.
There are real and interesting conversations happening, but you kind just have to jump in and insert yourself into them (no one will think you're rude, unless you are). I'm a classic forum/channel lurker myself, so it takes a bit of effort for me to reach out. But I can report that while writing this post, I had a great discussion about mechanical switch keyboard models with total strangers!
Of course, the first rule of App.net is...you must talk about App.net. If you were an early Google Plus user, you know what I mean. A lot of time and energy is spent in the meta discussion about the service itself. If you think about it, it's kind of like an icebreaker--being on App.net is the only thing you know for sure that you have in common with other App.net users. To be fair, the founders and developers of the service seem to be listening intently to feedback, but for the most part, the meta discussion is just noise.
Is it worth the cash?
Right now, the thing that App.net has on it's side is chaos. The service is a little messy and still lacking in some convenient features. Having a large global chat feed is certainly a plus, but it can be hard to follow a single conversation thread or see the most relevant posts. I find myself having to devote a bit more of my focus and attention to it (while Twitter just churns in the background). But being involved in that much chaos makes everything feel new and fresh. If you like taking the plastic off new social networks, and witnessing the slightly awkward, "is this thing on?" phase, then I see no reason to stay away.
If on the other hand, everyone you know is on Twitter, you're not interested in talking about tech and tech culture, you'd probably do well to stay away for a while. Also, it's $50, which is a non-trivial amount of money to pay for being cautiously optimistic that we can survive without our Twitter overlords.