Social Infrastructure and the Last Mile Problem

App.net is — as its tagline puts it — “a real-time social feed without the ads” that is looking to get crowdfunded this moment. It’s a service full of promises. It promises to put users and developers, and not advertisers, first. It promises to just be the API for 3rd party developers to build on. Indeed, as its founder, Dalton Caldwell, recently puts it, App.net promises to be something much more radical than Facebook or Twitter without ads: it is to be a social infrastructure — the social web’s analogue of phone and cable service.

I think the analogy is apt. Unfortunately, its aptitude does not bode well for the other promises that App.net makes.

Does anyone love their phone or cable service? I am sure we can all name different evils that the likes of AT&T and Comcast commit. All the annoyances we encounter stem from a much more basic problem: the last mile problem.

In the case of physical infrastructure like phone and cable lines, the last mile is what connects from the main network to the user. Arguably, it’s the most expensive part of any physical infrastructure. It’s also often, if not always, where the annoyances we encounter come from, directly or indirectly. It’s often the bottleneck for download and upload speed. And because it’s expensive, it’s often what gives the infrastructure provider a near monopoly in an area, which then leads to bad customer service, high cost, and all the other things we hate.

Social infrastructure faces the last mile problem too. Why is it such a big deal that Facebook and Twitter are going to be integrated into iOS 6 at the system level? What Facebook and Twitter get out of this deal is that last-mile access to the user — no matter what app the user is using, and indeed, no matter what app the user has installed. (Note: this is partly a peculiarity of the iOS ecosystem, where the non-jailbreaking user can’t fully control interactions allowed between apps.) As Facebook and Twitter can surely attest, getting that last mile to the iOS user is not cheap; whether it is paid with money, power, or influence.

Now, perhaps App.net has a brilliant plan, but I do not yet see how it can solve the last mile problem. Look, people don’t use AT&T or Comcast because their services are so great. In fact, they complain about the services all day long. Still, people stick with AT&T and Comcast because these are the relatively accessible and convenient options.

And it’s here that Caldwell’s comparison of App.net to Quora falls apart. Quora is not, and does not aim to be, an infrastructure. So it does not face the last mile problem. App.net does. Now, it is helpful to have important developers like Marco Arment on board. That helps to address the last mile problem, but only partly. Ultimately, a large portion of the last mile remains in control of the OS maker. And without some bargaining chip — money; or more likely, a large existing user-base — it is hard to see how to gain access.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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