origin_2453177028App.net, the pay-to-access social network, is adding a free-access option.

Earlier this month, founder Dalton Caldwell told me that people won’t adopt a new social network just because it’s good for them — it needed to be “truly better.” That’s probably true.

But free is also good.

Caldwell started App.net as a counterpoint to free social networks like Facebook and Twitter. His goal was to create a social space online that isn’t beholden to advertisers. Now, after six months as a paid site, gaining more than 30,000 members who pay $36 a year each, and building a thriving community on a web client App.net never expected to build, the service is poised to vastly expand its reach by adding a free tier. There is a catch, however.

To preserve the close-knit App.net sense of community, you need to be invited by an existing member. And there are a few limits on free accounts, App.net’s marketing manager Ben Friedland told me.

People with a free account will only be able to follow 40 people, will only have 500 megabytes of free file storage, and can only upload files with a maximum size of 10 megabytes. (Paid accounts can follow an unlimited number of users, get 10GB of included storage, and can upload 100 MB files.)

“As a bonus, members can earn even more file storage by inviting friends,” Friedland added.

Both the invited and inviting member will get 100 MB of extra storage if the invited member follows five people and authorizes at least one third-party app. Members can earn up to 2GB of extra storage this way.

This is big news for the social network, and it has the real potential to make it take off and grow quickly. Not to Facebook or Twitter size, but certainly 10 or even 100 times larger than it currently is.

“App.net has never been about the numbers,” Brian Solis, Principal Analyst at Altimeter Group, told me this morning. “I think this is an experiment in curated growth, much like Quora did.”

A quick poll of my Twitter followers found that some who haven’t yet taken the plunge now would, if it was free. When asked if he would join App.net if it was free, photographer @AlanBailward said “Yes, probably.” And software developer @CurtisMcHale said the fact that App.net isn’t just purely free is a plus for him:

“I think the appeal is that it’s got a business model.”

Three weeks ago when I chatted with App.net’s Caldwell, he said he felt that due to recent API spats between Twitter and Instagram, people were started to “get it.” In other words, people are starting to understand why a social network that is beholden to its users, not its advertisers, is a good thing.

Now we’ll see, won’t we?

photo credit: Yodel Anecdotal via photopin cc