How To Build Your House On A Giant's Back

A handful of idealistic app developers like Dalton Caldwell have sworn off Facebook and Twitter, but is it riskier to build on top of established platforms or cobble together independent networks? Why not do both?

Dalton Caldwell, an entrepreneur best known as the cofounder of Picplz, has vowed to never write another line of code for Facebook or Twitter.

In an open letter heard around the developer world, he explained to Mark Zuckerberg: "Your company, and Twitter, have demonstrably proven that they are willing to screw with users and 3rd-party developer ecosystems, all in the name of ad-revenue." So instead of building apps that connect to larger platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Caldwell—who says Facebook pressured him to sell his latest product to the company because it competes with the newly announced App Center—is now building his own social platform, App.net. The project has already far surpassed its Kickstarter funding goal of $500,000.

As Twitter strives for "consistency" and Facebook faces revenue pressure from its new public investors, app makers like Caldwell are left with a dilemma: Is it better to risk platform co-dependence or create an independent platform that will most likely stagnate?

Only a handful of developers have chosen to create an alternative to the platform giants, and the success stories are few and far between.

In 2010, startup Diaspora raised more than $200,000 on Kickstarter for an open-source Facebook alternative where privacy is the first priority. It promises users can own their own data and even lets them store it on their own servers. It was featured in the New York Times and New York Magazine, but two years later, the concept has failed to take off.

Then there's developer-safe social network Heello, which was created by Twitpic founder Noah Everett. The platform so similar to Twitter that at first some thought it was a joke. To his credit, Everett signed up 1 million users within two weeks. But he still has about 499 million to go before he’ll rival Twitter.

"Be your own bitch.... Don’t be a Google Bitch, don’t be a Facebook Bitch, and Don’t be a Twitter Bitch."

And there's the rub: In this era, the single fastest way to build an audience is by clamping on to social networks that already have millions of users. Pinterest and Socialcam did it on Facebook and Twitter. But they also shouldered platform risks—the gamble that those larger social networks won't one day flick dependent smaller businesses off of their backs with the tweak of an API or the launch of their own competing add-ons.

Nate Weiner, the founder of Pocket (formerly known as Read It Later) lost that bet with a real-time news app he launched early in his career. The app was dependent on Twitter's firehose of data. Then a couple of days later, Twitter shut off general access to that firehose. "Those three months I had spent working on it were just swiped away. I couldn’t do anything about it," Weiner tells Fast Company. "It was one of those moments when I realized, ok, I can’t really rely on other people’s platforms."

He went on to launch Read It Later and found himself staring down the same potential fate again when Apple added an article-saving feature, Reading List, to Safari in iOS 5. The death of Read It Later was proclaimed across the blogosphere in slideshows with titles such as 10 Apps Apple Just Killed With iOS 5.

But it lived.

"A year ago, before they launched it, we were saving about 150,000 to 200,000 articles a day," Weiner says. "That number today is over a million things saved per day."

What saved Read It Later was its ability to cross platforms. Reading list couldn't. And few people wants to only save articles they read on Safari with their iOS devices. Weiner had stumbled on the way for entrepreneurs to avoid platform risk while still taking advantage of the built-in growth potential of an established platform.

BandPage had already embraced this idea by the time Facebook nearly demolished it. The startup raised more than $19 million for templatizing musicians' Facebook pages. Then Facebook changed profile pages and removed the ability for musicians to turn an app into their default landing pages. Monthly active BandPage users plummeted from 32.1 million to 3.3 million. But BandPage founder J Sider says he had already been working on another product when Facebook changes caused BandPage's traffic to tank. BandPage Everywhere now updates a band’s presence on YouTube, Facebook, and the band's website from a single dashboard. And BandPage Everywhere would never have gotten off the ground without Bandpage's initial push by Facebook.

"You need to build your own independent company off of that momentum," Sider says.

Fred Wilson, principal of Union Square Ventures, has summed it up in a pithier way: "Be your own bitch." As he has put it, "Don’t be a Google Bitch, don’t be a Facebook Bitch, and Don’t be a Twitter Bitch."

Even behemoth companies are still working out the transition. Zynga's audience is built almost solely on Facebook subscribers. But the gaming company is scrambling to beef up its mobile offering as players shift away from logging into Facebook—and Facebook games—using their computers.

Neither Zynga nor Bandpages have proved they can fly far from the platforms that helped launch them. Even Instagram, the rare billion-dollar success story about of an independent social network, was gobbled up by Facebook in the end.

Caldwell has already raised $600,000 for App.net, a platform where "developers come first, not advertisers." An impressive feat, but reaching that Kickstarter-esque funding goal is a long way from solving the fundamental problem for developers. Caldwell acknowledges the quixotic nature of his pursuit. "I’m trying to create the service I want to exist, because I am trying to create the future I want to live in," he writes in a blog post that defends App.net. "The alternative is depressing."

Can he even think of a platform that, like his aims to, has attracted a critical mass of users by appealing to developers?

Sure, he says. "Twitter."

[Image: Flickr user Jose Maria Cuellar]

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