“You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” -Idiom
The announcement of the new freemium tier into App.net on Monday was a big surprise to all of the App.net community. It could have all gone down in a much better way that would have been more inline with the App.net norms and been a way to help galvanize us all instead of causing any grief or anxiety.
As of that Monday and in the brief history of App.net, all 30k+ users outside of the staff were members because we all paid to be members. Together, we built a little community of developers and users around this audacious proposal starting back in August 2012. Over time and little by little, new members joined the fray. Various articles by tech bloggers, releases of new App.net client software from recognized social media developers and other coverage often boosted the regular daily membership numbers. But, membership growth was nothing spectacular and that was fine because getting tons of users was never really the point. Dalton Caldwell always kept a consistent dialogue with the community (and the critics) on the merits and benefits of trying to grow a real and sustainable business model. App.net was going to take this different path. The membership grew slowly. App.net folks put in lots of effort along the way and continually added to the API for the benefit of developers and users. New built-in services like file storage, private messaging, and other 3rd-party App.net-connected sites started popping-up and getting action. New client apps dropped from developers investing their time, talent, and resources into this big experiment to see if we all could keep this going on membership fees, developer incentives, and user support instead of taking the common (and usually futile) route of going after hordes of free users then playing the ad insertion game while being at the mercy of advertising for revenue. Like all communities, we also had people grumbling on certain aspects of the service and how or why it should be different for some various reason. But, the lively dialogue was always out there and dished into our streams while normally addressed by the founders, staff, developers, and other users in the open and transparent, refreshing adult manner. We all became accustomed to that familiar model as the overall App.net experience. Things were buzzing along.
Then Monday hit.
The free tier blog post went live and most App.net users and developers were perplexed. Where did this come from? Marco Arment mentions that first part of the post is written defensively and I agree with him. The post made it sound as if this was always the plan which didn’t seem right to many of us. Everything on Monday got wacky after that for many of us. The service was inundated with new users and new load on the network. I’m sure the small App.net staff was busy addressing uptime and performance instead of really getting out into the service with users and developers addressing change and transition in their usual ways of actively posting and interacting. Perhaps, internally within App.net, the free tier plan was always part of the future but that was never the understanding the paying users and developers. Heck, most of the draw of this new service for us was to only have people involved that thought enough about the quality of a service and the tools developers made around the service to pay for it and applications connected to it. App.net users were essentially escaping the muck and “bot-hell” of what “free” service of Twitter had become. We also wanted more than just an alternative to the traditional social network as defined by the current ad-supported players. This move to freemium by App.net sure felt like more of the old model we were trying to avoid instead of the new sustainable model we had all been working on together. This was confusing. Whether or not you fell into the camp that welcomed the news and new free tier users or not, the whole communication probably didn’t need to be so abrasive and feel so foreign. Dalton, Berg and company could have been more “ADN-like” in the way they rolled this out so it wouldn’t have caused such grief. It all felt very “vinegar” when many of us App.net users were all accustomed to Dalton and Berg-branded “honey” delivery system.
Instead of taking the position that freemium was always part of the plan and perhaps being defensive with those that didn’t immediately understand the move, App.net could have could have explained what I think is the deeper reasoning for going down this free tier route. After reading the great article over at Technology Review right now on the k-core distribution and the death of Friendster, I can understand why the free tier would be important to the long term success of App.net. The rationale that friends are critical to the long term success of a social network makes more sense and is a much easier way to portray the change to the existing paid userbase than trying to insinuate they weren’t paying attention over the last few months and missed the nuanced references to the inevitable freemium path. Having your users and developers confused and allowing them to wonder what else they might have missed along the way doesn’t help the situation. It’s much better to work instead on building on common understandings. The long term viability of the service is something we would all huddle around regardless of how we might have initially reacted to this major change. We all want the service we have put such effort into to endure and prosper. Regardless of intent, the approach App.net took on this needlessly damaged some of the trust they had done such a great job of accruing over these many months. This hit on trust, for me, was what I was so bothered by and not the inclusion of more (free) users to enjoy the service.
A more “App.net-like” way would have been to frame the freemium decision as just another extension of what App.net has always been about – the users. Dalton and the team could have done the announcement and positioned it all as another awesome benefit of being a supporter and investing in and believing in the platform. Of course, they don’t need to go so far as to be flowery or bullshit us. Dalton and Berg could have been transparent on this with everyone (as they always have been with other issues) and explained they want us to bring in more friends so the community can stay vibrant and grow to avoid the very real perils of niche poison. The free tier could have been more of a call to action for the users instead of having the decision and changes feel foreign. App.net could have made this be a rallying cry to recruit more people with the tools (free invites) they are providing for us to use. They could have trumpeted that this was another awesome perk instead of this being something that was put upon us and even possibly making us feel like suckers for initially paying. They could have argued the idea that developers will get more users and those users will be great because they are coming recommended from our already awesome community. This approach would have been a better way to go and helped us support it even though we might not have fully understood it. I eventually got to this understanding and deeply believe it is really what is going on here. In any event, if they went down this path on the rationale for the major change, I don’t think they would have felt as much grief from users and devs around the announcement. Any energy from the community around shock and concern could have been channeled into a more “honey-like” authentic purpose that better jibes with why we all appreciate App.net and why we want it to endure, even with the inclusion of more (free) users.