Has there ever been an App.net that was successful?
December 16, 2012 7:48 AM   Subscribe

What's an example of a project like Diaspora or App.net that's actually been successful?

I'm a sucker for splinter groups like this that try to re-create a huge and popular network/organization on principled grounds because they believe it's gotten too commercial / exploitative / hard to use or otherwise lost its way. Lately it's happening with Couchsurfing: there are multiple small-scale efforts recently to re-create it, and I'm sure one or two of them will emerge as the most prominent, and I'll be tempted to join them.

But it seems like these projects never succeed -- not just in the sense of "catching up" to the original organization/network in size or activity level (which may not even be the goal) but even in terms of reaching the critical mass where they can offer a comparable user experience. It seems like when the changing of the guard does happen, it's because the new players simply offer better features or a better short-term value proposition to even the most apathetic user (like Facebook vs. Myspace). If the idea is for users to migrate en masse for more long-term and/or ideological reasons, it never seems to work out that way.

Can anyone offer counterexamples that might give me some hope? The perfect one would include a large network effect that had to be overcome (like the examples above), but I'll take anything :)

I wouldn't count G+ because it doesn't seem like there's much daylight between them and Facebook in terms of overarching ideology or principles. But I guess that the GNU project and Linux are sort of what I mean? Are there other examples from the free software movement? To what extent is that kind of thing comparable to what an App.net is trying to do?

[Also I'm not looking to debate whether FB/Twitter/CS/etc have actually lost their way. The main thing is that the new network/whatever was started explicitly based on that belief, whether you agree or not.]
posted by pete_22 to Technology (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The "collapse" of OpenOffice and the rise of LibreOffice is the only one that comes to mind - although there is was a huge split not just a minor project being built up slowly.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 8:04 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There were/are a number of LiveJournal splinter sites, many of them having branched off (or gained significant userbase increases) following the times LJ was sold and had major changes in terms of service as a result. Some of them - I'm thinking in particular of uJournal, Dreamwidth, Deadjournal - had/have pretty substantial, self-sustaining communities.

Admittedly, there are some advantages there: Blogging is less dependent on network effects, though LJ really is very social, and the software was available to use out-of-the-box, which reduces the effort to fork. Also, some of the more successful ones focused on specific subgroups (fanfic, for example) rather than attempting to be general-purpose communities. Nevertheless, I think it's a valid example of what you're looking for.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:06 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think Wordpress was actually a reaction to changes at Movable Type, but I think it did benefit greatly from people looking for an alternative to Moveable Type.
posted by COD at 8:35 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Though I do not endorse it, Conservapedia can be seen as a splinter from Wikipedia's alleged bias.

Various religious denominations are splits from more orthodox strains of belief, e.g., Protestantism, etc.

Various countries have split off from larger countries, e.g., Bangladesh and Pakistan.

So, to answer your question more generally: if you do not limit your question to examples of technology, there are many successful (for certain definitions of "success") examples of splinter groups thriving.
posted by dfriedman at 8:47 AM on December 16, 2012

There has been a global rejection of Microsoft Word documents as an appropriate format for sharing and distributing formatted documents. There have been formal efforts to require governments to use software that produces documents in an open format. There has been a growing public awareness that people should use PDFs instead of MS Word documents when possible. These changes have been made for a combination of practical and ideological reasons.

Ten years ago I used to routinely get MS Word documents from people in e-mail, as if it was a universal format. Now that hardly ever happens. The transition has pretty much been made.

Does that count?
posted by alms at 9:06 AM on December 16, 2012

DuckDuckGo (currently on the front page) is a search engine with an ideological stance against the personal data mining of Google and others. It's not crowd-sourced, though.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:26 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

For a long time, the main blogging engine for self-hosted blogs was Movable Type, which was released under the MIT "Artistic License." It had been available for free. At some point (v4, I think), it went to a paid model.

This occasioned a mass migration to Wordpress, which is free/libre, released under the GPL. Movable Type never recovered. Its parent company, Six Apart, does still exist, but became muddled in its mission and has been bought and sold more than once, I think.
posted by adamrice at 9:57 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: pinboard versus delicious.
posted by srboisvert at 10:50 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Pinboard is a great example. DreamJournal.net comes to mind also and is a... strange example.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:37 AM on December 16, 2012

Seconding Dreamwidth.org as a good example. They are definitely alive and offering a similar user experience as LiveJournal.

As for DuckDuckGo, there is also Startpage.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:14 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not crowd-sourced, though.

DuckDuckGo does actually crowdsource plugins, which is sort of a neat approach and does seem to be improving its results with time.

Though I do not endorse it, Conservapedia can be seen as a splinter from Wikipedia's alleged bias.

There may be a sense in which Wikipedia itself is an example of the phenomenon under consideration - I'm not sure the Wikipedia article on the history of Wikipedia is the most reliable thing ever, but it's worth considering.

I wonder if Freenode counts, a little bit? It's been tremendously successful in centralizing FOSS project chat.

I seem to remember the era just around and after Napster's biggest success and legal downfall as rife with alternative filesharing projects and networks of varying degrees of openness / centralization / ideological skew / broad adoption. Some of those have been, let's say, reasonably succesful.
posted by brennen at 1:40 PM on December 16, 2012

Xiph has been very successful with FLAC and Ogg Vorbis, free and open source alternatives to MP3/aac/Apple Lossless/etc... Whether this is a social network is open for debate--they are certainly used for lots of sharing, and the network effects are not totally without comparison to online social network platforms.

Foobar2000 is also a good example of software started as a reaction to certain design philosophies of WinAMP (well, and the fact that it was bought by AOL).
posted by ropeladder at 2:03 PM on December 16, 2012

Oh, if we're doing socially-purposed software, Linus Torvalds wrote Git partly because of dissatisfaction with the proprietary version control system the kernel developers had been using, and partly out of dissatisfaction with the free alternatives (CVS, SVN, etc.). It's (arguably) the most successful version control system in history.

(Subversion itself was a reasonably successful effort to write a better CVS. More pragmatic than ideological a project, though.)
posted by brennen at 2:21 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Any existing "network-like" entity is going to take a long time to replace and replicate. At the same time, a nascent network-like project won't look like a success if you compare it to a older, better established entity.

From that perspective, I think it may be premature to dismiss App.net. I don't use it, or follow it closely, but rather than looking for a vague measure like "critical mass" look at the rate of growth in users, the rate of the rate of growth in users, similar for active users, and "posts" or similar, particularly posts per active user. Its probably a fail if active users and overall activity are declining for non-season reasons. But as long as new users are singing up and using the service, it has a chance. And each new user increases the chance that an existing previously inactive user becomes an active user.

In any case, no strong examples are springing to mind that haven't been mentioned. I think that those that succeed mix practicality and ideology. They aren't directly comprable, but compare git, which was driven by practical need and idealism, with Freedombox, which seems to have a lot of idealism, but doesn't seem to have a practical on how to be sufficiently useful before it achieves "critical mass".
posted by Good Brain at 4:37 PM on December 16, 2012

Best answer: As you've noticed, there are many examples in free/open-source software. Here's a few more:

* The standard GUI implementation for most unixy computers since the 1990s was XFree86. They were never good at cooperation with other groups or new developers, but that mostly caused just grumbling. Until in 2004, they suddenly changed their licensing terms for no apparent reason. Many of the community developers quit, and started their own version called Xorg, which by now has become the new standard.

* Most Linux systems use the compiler GCC to build code. It's controlled by the Free Software Foundation, which is a non-profit, but is ironically also a bit controlling. For a long time they were resistant to new contributions from outside, so a fork called EGCS was started. Eventually it became so popular that the FSF was forced to sanction it as the "next version" of GCC.

The FSF has been involved in this sort of dispute more times since, cf. Emacs/XEmacs, glibc/Linux libc, perhaps GCC/clang.

* Perhaps the weirdest case has to do with the most popular commercial Linux distribution, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). They are obligated by several open source licenses to contribute their code to the community, which they do—and then projects like CentOS use this data to produce their own versions of RHEL. It's strange because the community versions try as much as possible not to change anything at all about the software, but to leave it as similar to RHEL as possible without violating trademark law.
posted by vasi at 8:25 PM on December 16, 2012

Forks are quite prominent in free software / open source. There have been many notable ones and, more seriously, all modern development in systems such as git is based on pervasive forking and merging. Like, it's how you do your work: fork someone else's, work locally, and merge the desirable parts when and if you care to. So many projects have thousands of living variants, all serving slightly different needs, adapted different ways, borrowing what they need from one another.

(To borrow a biological metaphor: you're looking for speciation events in an arena that is often, and increasingly, characterized by horizontal transfer.)

Things like App.net are not directly comparable in these terms, though. They are not making a code derivative, they are cloning: trying to produce a mimic from their own efforts. This happens not so much when someone wants to "change the direction" of an organization they are owners, operators or contributors of, so much as when they literally lack a formal, legal stake in it at all. They want a piece of the same pie, they've no role in it currently, so they have to make a full copy of it from scratch, which they do control.

The "it" here is both the operational resources (hardware, domain name, employees, business model) and also the intellectual property (copyright, patents, trademarks). The copyright on the code is probably the part you're wondering about: twitter code has probably never left the building, so it's not even a question of licensing it. It's not for sale. If you want to make it do something different, and you're not a twitter employee, you have to rewrite it from scratch, outside the building. But code alone does not make a business.

If you want successful examples of copying someone else's business to take their market ... that's one of the more common and praised business strategies that exist. Go into a supermarket and ask yourself how many of the products there are the "original" in their category, and how many are "successful clones".
posted by ead at 8:41 AM on December 17, 2012

Response by poster: This happens not so much when someone wants to "change the direction" of an organization they are owners, operators or contributors of, so much as when they literally lack a formal, legal stake in it at all. They want a piece of the same pie, they've no role in it currently, so they have to make a full copy of it from scratch, which they do control.

That's a bit cynical. I take the ADN creators at their word that there are principles at stake and not just power/control. But I see the distinction you're making between free software forks and the kinds of "clones" I'm talking about.

I think you're more focused on how the new organization comes about. My question is more about why. If there's an ideology involved, if users are being recruited to switch as a kind of symbolic gesture, regardless of (or even against) their own narrow short-term self-interest ...then it counts, whether it's technically a fork or a clone or something else.

If you want successful examples of copying someone else's business to take their market ... that's one of the more common and praised business strategies that exist.

Sure, but again, that's not what I was asking about.
posted by pete_22 at 3:14 AM on December 18, 2012

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