App.net, the microblogging service launched as a paid-subscriber alternative to ad-supported systems like Facebook and Twitter, has decided to close its doors and release its software as open source.

In a , App.net cited diminishing revenue—a lack of subscribers—as the reason for the shutdown. Users have until March 14 to export their data, and at some point (it hasn’t been specified when) all of the code underlying App.net will be released as open source.

The project was widely regarded as a brave idea, but it was at odds with the accepted economics of social networking projects. It chose to only partially open-source its code base and didn’t generate enough critical mass to make it self-sustaining.

If you build it, they will come—or will they?

The original idea behind App.net, as Simon Phipps in a skeptical 2012 Techdailyhub blog, was to crowdfund an effort to create a messaging platform that could host many kinds of apps, with Twitter-like microblogging as one of the most prominent. Since users paid for the privilege of accessing the service, it theoretically would be immune to the ethical quandaries of an ad-supported service. It was also meant to be more appealing to developers frustrated with Twitter’s tooling.

 had enough customers to remain online but not hire full-time staff. The company had chosen to open-source only and as unwilling to commit completely to an open source model and thus stimulate further adoption.

App.net’s approach stood in contrast to Diaspora, another open source social networking project. App.net had one central piece of closed, hosted infrastructure to run the service, with a number of open projects running on top of it. Diaspora provided all the code as open source, but left the burden of running it to users (some of whom have provided hosting for Diaspora nodes as a service).

Neither App.net nor Diaspora attracted a sizable audience—including the developers who were meant to be the primary users and evangelists for those systems.

Never underestimate the power of inertia

Despite its commercial nature, Twitter remains a chief venue for devs to connect with each other and obtain quick answers to shouted-out questions. For most people targeted by App.net, the immediate utility of Twitter—and the fact that everyone was already using it—outweighed any concerns about the commercial nature of the platform.

 microblogging client, but not its full underlying platform. One possibility is for App.net to go in the same direction as Diaspora—with the ability to be self-hosted, in much the same manner as a WordPress installation.

Will people ditch Twitter for an indie, bootstrapped alternative? Probably not, when Twitter remains ubiquitous, easy, and already populated by the people they want to reach. The more likely scenario is that others will repurpose App.net’s code into a useful option—a DIY service platform, for instance—and save the pieces for other projects. The big lesson is that it takes more than providing an alternative to get people to switch to it.

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