App.Net as a proto personal cloud service and VRM accelerator
Photo by Sam Howzit –

If you haven’t paid much attention to (ADN) lately, maybe it’s because it was easy to dismiss the service early on as a mere Twitter wanna-be. But it’s clear now that ADN’s Twitter clone ( is only a demonstration of one kind of app that can be built on the ADN infrastructure. ADN founder Dalton Caldwell believes his team is creating a personal cloud platform that will be home to a multitude of interesting services.

It’s still early days for, but after poking around the service for the past few months and listening to a few podcasts where Caldwell has talked at length about what his team is trying to build, I’m convinced that ADN is something the VRM community should be paying more attention to.

Here’s the thing: ADN is not a true VRM service and it’s not a true personal cloud service, but it bakes in some of the core elements of each. And the way the service is constructed is prompting its growing base of developers and users to think differently about their relationship to web services. And this new way of thinking could lead these users directly to true VRM and personal cloud services in the future.

ADN could be an accelerator for VRM if the VRM community chooses to see it that way.

Here are some data points I find interesting. See what you think:

Core Values

Take a look at ADN’s core values. The first two are:

  • We are selling our product, NOT our users.
  • You own your content.

Right off the top, these values set ADN apart from services like Google, Twitter and Facebook, whose motives are more aligned with advertisers than with users.

The rest of the core values emphasize financial and philosophical alignment with members and developers. ADN is building a sustainable business that benefits when its users benefit.

Privacy and Terms

Read the Terms of Service and the Privacy Policy. Go ahead. Here’s the thing: you can actually read them. They’re short, written in straightforward language, and they’re kept in a GitHub repository so you can suggest changes. The terms aren’t perfect, but they’re not bad and on the whole they’re user-friendly.

Sounds like a personal cloud to me

ADN has defined a File API that allows each user free access to 20 GB of disk space for storing images, documents, or any other type of file. (The company has hinted that more storage may eventually be available for a price.) The benefit of storing your files on ADN is that you can allow them to be accessed by any service using the ADN API (what Lou Franco calls BYOBE, or Bring-Your-Own-Back-End).

So, for instance, if you joined a Flickr-like photo sharing service that stored your photos in the ADN file store, you could switch to a competing ADN-enabled photo sharing service at any time and you wouldn’t have to rebuild your photo library from scratch. You could just point the new service to your photos and keep on truckin’. Or use the two services side-by-side. It’s up to you.

While this would fail some tests of a true personal cloud (such as the ability to pick your own file server) what offers within its service is personal cloud-like, and I’m not aware of any other popular web services that offer something similar.

Your data is your data

In addition to porting files from service to service, ADN allows all of your data to move freely via its API. That means your messages, your list of followers and who you follow, your list of interactions, and anything else that ADN stores can be reused by any app using the ADN API. Or, you can export your data and social graph and take them to another service.

Expressing intent with ADN

Project Llama wants to expand ADN’s annotations so that users can tag their accounts with keywords that describe themselves and what they’re looking for. So, for instance, I might tag myself as a “hockey fan” who is looking for “Tampa Bay Lightning tickets”. I don’t think Project Llama is thinking of itself as building a VRM-type expression of intent, but it’s not to hard to see how it could become one.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Here are some recent podcasts where Dalton goes into detail about what he thinks ADN is:

A big but…

My argument is not that is a true VRM service or even a true personal cloud. For one thing, isn’t focused on enabling relationships with vendors outside of the ADN universe. For another, currently is just a another silo. A true personal cloud service would be agnostic about where files or graphs are stored.

However, Dalton Caldwell believes he’s creating a personal cloud. And, certainly, with its emphasis on individual control of personal data, the aims and intentions of echo the values espoused by the VRM community. And ADN is prompting developers to think differently about the types of apps they build and their relationship to user data in a way that makes true VRM solutions a more obvious next step. And that is something that the VRM community — that all of us — should be celebrating and supporting.

I’m @stumax on I’d love to have you follow me there. And if you’d like an invite for a free ADN account, email me at stumaxis at gmail.

The Overhead Implications of Relationship Management

I’ve been invited to join Google+, but every time I try to join I get the message that Google has “temporarily exceeded our capacity.” So fine. I’ll be patient.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading up on the service. The most fascinating part of it to me is Google Circles, a kind of proto-VRM social graph management feature. Circles lets you define relationships between your contacts so that you can tune your messages and sharing appropriately. Maybe you want to share your pictures of your kids with grandma and grandpa, but not with your drinking buddies. Circles helps you keep those groups straight.

On this week’s Hypercritical podcast, John Siracusa pointed out one potential problem with this feature: the interface is cute and effective for groups of 12 or less, but a bit unwieldy for the larger circles of dozens or hundreds you might want to put together for, say, professional networking.

And Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb points out another important usability issue with Circles (and, by extension, any relationship management application): administrative overhead. She points out that your relationships with people may change over time due to things like changing jobs. The group of people that yesterday you categorized as “work colleagues” are today “acquaintances”, or something similar.

Or, as Perez says, virtual relationships can become real, as when we meet someone we’ve been following on Twitter:

But what about when one of those people becomes a real-world friend? Maybe you first run into them at a conference, putting a face to a name. They’re now an “Acquaintance.” Later, you spend a night out on the town with them, and realize you have a lot in common. You make plans to see each other again, at a non-work event, perhaps. This person has become a “Friend.” Depending on how your Google Circles are set up, you may have had to drag-and-drop them into multiple different circles over time, as this relationship changes.

How many people do you have in your address book? Let’s say your Google+ Circles include the 150 people that Dunbar says we can maintain stable social relationships with. How much time do you think it would take you to review each of them and make sure that they’re organized into the right groups in Circles? And how often would you have to look at that list to make updates? And what if you were to add in people on the fringes – people you might be acquainted with, but don’t interact with on a regular basis?

This administrative overhead would be a deal killer for most normal humans. Very few people will want to take the time to maintain this relationship graph on a regular basis. If you’re, say, a real estate agent, keeping up with your contact list is a critical business activity. But when you’re off the clock, personal contact administration is just a chore, and ignoring that chore can have consequences. If the tools you use to interact online expect you to have a continually pruned and up-to-date relationship graph, the risk of exposing information to the wrong group of people is higher when you don’t meet that expectation.

The implication of this observation is that either the tools have to do a lot more to help you manage these changing relationships automatically – perhaps by analyzing where you are, who you’re with, and what sort of messages you send via email, twitter, IM, etc. – or our personal relationship management tools are going to remain very simple for the foreseeable future. I suspect the latter is the case. Without having seen it myself, I suspect that Google+ Circles represents the outer edge of what people are willing to do to maintain relationships online. If that’s true, then anything that depends on exploiting your social graph will have some built-in limitations that will be very hard to get around.


Proponents of VRM and the Personal Data Ecosystem are facing an uphill battle. In order to move the locus of power away from organizational interests and towards individual interests, the architects of this new space will need to break two very powerful dependencies: corporations’ dependency on the income derived from capturing and reusing their users’ data, and individuals’ dependency on the free or nearly free services that they get in exchange for giving up that data. These two forces form a kind of magnetic attraction to each other, one that won’t easily be broken.

This point was driven home to me by this excellent post from Ian Wilker about Sam Harrelson, who deleted his Facebook, Google, and Twitter accounts back in November and wrote this about why he did so:

I don’t blame them. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple etc are corporations. Corporations are inherently out for themselves and their stock holders. I blame myself for falling into the trap of shiny and nifty free/freemium services in exchange for my data and my online identity. I want my children and students to grow up in an era that includes an open web that isn’t based on advertising or 3rd party cookie data mining.

There are few of us who are as committed to the idea of breaking our dependency on these services as Sam is. I can’t do it. I might be able to live without Twitter at this point. I’ve walked up to the line of deleting my Facebook account, but can’t pull the trigger. Google is just a bridge too far for me. No way can I replace the convenience of Gmail.

And the punchline is that even Sam can’t completely leave Twitter. In a comment to his own post on leaving these services, he writes:

Oddly enough (or not), my 8th graders have been on my case constantly about my Twitter sojourn. So, I’m using the @GriffinScience account as my “teacher”/personal account to keep in contact with the students who rely on their Twitter stream pretty heavily (growing number and I want to encourage their exploration).

Online services like Twtter, Facebook, et al, have become so embedded in our lives that, lacking alternatives, we are left with two painful choices to make: either 1) continue to use these web services and pay the price by contributing to the erosion of our privacy and control, or 2) give up these services and cut ourselves off from a vibrant online society and a powerful set of communication tools.

We need other choices to make. Organizations need alternative ways to make a profit other than capturing and storing user data. Individuals need low-cost, high-value services that come with tools to control the movement and use of their personal data. 

But new services that offer these choices will need to overcome the strong symbiotic bond that currently exists between users and the current set of services. Personal Data service providers will need to offer alternatives that look a lot like the current options and that provide similar levels of utility, while also providing the extra features that move the balance of control back towards individuals. Like Nicorette for smokers or methadone for heroin addicts, Personal Data services need to satisfy current cravings while simultaneously replacing them with something healthier. And that, while not impossible, is going to be a challenge.