Twitter became a powerhouse because of its lack of restrictions. Now, it’s enforcing new rules. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 22, 2012 6:31AM
I might never buy a printed book ever again. I think people who prefer LPs to CDs or even digital downloads maybe shouldn’t be allowed to vote in national elections. I gave up my landline years ago, and I’ll probably drop my cable subscription within the next year.
But I still love email, even though some analysts keep claiming that it’s been rendered dead and irrelevant by text messaging, chat, and social networks.
Email wins, because it remains a vague, conceptual service instead of a tangible, proprietary product. RIM and Apple reinvented the accessibility of email by making awesome little pocket Internet devices that we carry everywhere. Google democratized email by turning into a free service. Microsoft revitalized it by creating Outlook.com, a new web-based mail client and integrated communications manager that makes an Inbox several times more useful. In the end, though, email is still the exact same thing it’s always been: a simple agreement between the world’s service providers that this is how Person A can send something to Person B, no matter how many layers separate those two people.
This is completely different from how Facebook or Twitter work. They’re specific products that lure its users into a precise, tightly controlled location to transact business, and they represent the goals of the organizations that control those services. They’re supplied at no cost to those users. Which is lovely, but if you think that through another step you realize that Twitter and Facebook never serve the needs of the users directly. Instead, they serve the needs of the people who’ve actually put money into the thing.
With Facebook, that means the overall experience will always be directed towards data mining. It’s no accident that every new Facebook feature somehow greases the movement of private information into a public space, where Facebook’s algorithms can dutifully note, analyze, and correlate it all. It’s also no accident that if you revisit your privacy settings after a few months, you’ll discover that certain items that you’d previously designated as “private” are now sunbathing topless in the front yard.
Twitter is benign, by comparison. But its looking to remain independent and profitable, which means that it needs to find a way to use Twitter to serve ads. Hence, “promoted Tweets” show up in your timeline. The news that Blueberry Fig Newtons are loaded with natural antioxidants is given just as much significance as the news that a friend’s son is out of surgery and that everything went better than expected.
We’ve all put ourselves in a bind. Systems like Twitter and Facebook come along and they’re legitimately wonderful; we find that they fill a real need in our lives. I still have almost no use for Facebook, but I love Twitter. Between the interesting links that come my way via the people I trust, random news and thoughts from friends, and access to the quickest mechanism for answering the question “What the hell just happened?” Twitter makes every day easier and more pleasant for me.
Twitter has become such an important part of my day that the service seems like a component of the atmosphere. I feel as though Twitter, like oxygen and nitrogen, are just part of the package you’re entitled to when you agree to be born on Planet Earth.
But that’s not true, is it? It’s so easy to forget that my access to Twitter as I know it continues solely at the pleasure of the company that runs the service.
And that’s why a somewhat technical new post on Twitter’s official blog feels so significant. Twitter is amending the rules that developers must adhere to when writing apps or services that incorporate Twitter.
Twitter became the powerhouse that it is today because of its almost total lack of restrictions. Developers were free to write any sort of Twitter client they imagined. They were so, so successful at this that their mobile and desktop apps completely trounced Twitter’s in-house offerings. They could also invent ways of using Twitter as an invisible channel for data, rather than as a destination in and of itself. This wide-open freedom to rearticulate the Twitter concept begat superstar apps like Flipboard, which collects links to Tweeted articles and photos and videos in your subscriptions, and lays them out in the form of a slick electronic magazine.
Well. Twitter is enforcing new rules. Some of them are universally positive. Others, though, underscore the fact that the Prime Directive of every company is self-interest . . . if it wishes to keep making its payroll.
The initial wide-open approach to third-party Twitter software caused the company to lose a lot of its control over the direction and destiny of its own product. If Twitter’s ads are keeping the lights on and the breakroom fridge stocked with discount diet colas, then an app that marginalizes those ads is a problem. So does an app that reduces Twitter to a mere underlying technology, and makes the brand invisible to the user; or an app that encourages a user to never interact with Twitter.com directly at all. Overall, these new changes enforce a third-party app ecosystem that can supplement Twitter but can’t really supplant it...and can never tighten the taps of Twitter’s ad revenue.
None of this spells doom for Twitter. But it’s a reminder that we should never, ever forget that some of the services we rely on every day are indeed proprietary products. The makers of those products are free to modify, limit, or remove them at any time, for any reason, without any notice at all. We tend to forget that. We think Twitter and Facebook are public roads. They aren’t. They’re footpaths through private property. The fact that your older brother and even your father used to take this same shortcut home from school every day doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use it tomorrow, or continue to use it under the existing terms.
And that’s why I paid $50 to support App.net. In broad strokes, the goals of the App.net team is to take the social graph that’s exclusively curated by private hands like Twitter and Facebook, and turn it into a public right-of-way . . . like email.
It’s not quite open source and it’s certainly not Free Software. It’s a user-supported research project. If you’re curious about the project, you can visit join.app.net and sign up. They’re throttling new accounts at the moment, and yes, it’ll cost you $50 for a year’s worth of service.
Also, while the alpha service as it currently stands looks like a close clone of Twitter, App.net is far more ambitious. This Twitter-esque webapp is just the first, visible expression of a basic concept that can express itself in any way that developers imagine. The big idea is to create a fundamental infrastructure for Facebook-style and Twitter-style interactions (as well as future concepts as yet unimagined by sane and stable people) where the support for the service always comes from the people who use it. This, the Prime Directive is always to serve the needs of those users. Privacy, security, control over your data, as well as a lack of ads of any kind are pretty much a given.
The total community numbers in the low thousands and most of the members are folks like me, who mostly talk about App.net. It isn’t a consumer product. It’s a bit like a Kickstarter project. The $50 is a sign of support. It represents my curiosity about what would happen if they stopped blogging about a better, more user-focused social map and actually went and did it.
It seems like App.net will struggle for mainstream acceptance so long as there’s any kind of subscription fee attached. That’s certainly true if the fee is greater than the cost of a Starbucks coffee, anyway. I’m already fighting an uphill battle to get my siblings and cousins to get an account on Flickr.com, so that I can share family photos with them privately, away from Facebook’s insatiable and omnivorous eye . . . and Flickr is free.
But it’s an interesting concept, and worth nudging along. Twitter isn’t evil. I trust it and I rely on it. That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to spend $50 to help develop a public right-of-way through the digital social map.