Why it's time to give Twitter back to the community

Twitter is too important to twist in the wind. Infinitely more value could be unlocked if it become an open platform again. Think data and developers.

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Image: James Martin/CNET

On This Week in Tech, I mentioned that the best thing that could happen to Twitter would be to become an open platform again. Since my comments generated plenty of feedback, I decided to explain why an open Twitter would be an infinitely better Twitter. Better for the company. Better for its users. Better for the organizations that want to use its powerful data sets. And, better for the developers who want to build on top of it.

Twitter is the live internet. Others have called it the dial tone or the pulse of the internet. However you choose to think about it, it has become a fundamental aspect of the internet itself. It's the place you can go at any moment to find out what's happening in the world--from your own town all the way up to the global community--and what other people are saying about it. It's the place to familiarize, activate, organize, and bloviate.

The open web would feel like a far less current and far more curated place without it.

The problem is that Twitter is now run by a struggling public company that has taken a stranglehold on its feature set, chased away ecosystem developers, and ensconced most of its API deep behind a corporate moat.

The rationale has been to simplify the experience and make Twitter more friendly to new users. It hasn't worked, as user growth has stalled out. Recently, Twitter has reportedly been considering drastic measures to jumpstart growth, including increasing the service's 140-character limit--its secret sauce--to 10,000 characters.

In other words, Twitter, the company, continues to fight the destiny of Twitter, the internet service.

It's time to let Twitter be Twitter again.

On TWiT, I jokingly argued that someone should buy Twitter and give it back to the community. Despite the fact that the stock price slid under $20 for the first time ever this month, that's not likely to happen. But, Twitter, the company, still has the opportunity to change horses and put Twitter back onto its natural course as a platform--the tissue of which makes up the beating heart of the web.

It could accomplish that, once and for all, by making the underlying framework of Twitter open source and working with internet standards bodies to make it a universal protocol. It would have be done in stages and there would be plenty of infrastructure costs and challenges to consider, but that would unlock more value than anything that's going to come out of 1335 Market Street in San Francisco.

It would let 100 different flowers bloom. The technorati in Silicon Valley and around the world remain as infatuated with Twitter as ever. Developers may say they were burned by Twitter when they produced apps and services before the company cut off the API in 2012. But, making Twitter a fully open platform would likely set off a new land grab.

Mobile and desktop apps that come at the Twitter firehose from lots of different directions and with many different use cases would reinvigorate Twitter and drive useful new features--unlike the way the current Twitter regime keeps forcing features like Moments, which its users have rejected. Instead, we'd likely see the return of innovations like uber-useful clients in the mould of Tweetdeck and hot new features like pull-to-refresh, which was introduced in Twitter app Tweetie and not only became a standard among Twitter apps but became an iOS staple as well.

And then, there's the data--the crown jewel of Twitter.

Companies are using "sentiment analysis"--a fancy way of saying they're data mining public Twitter feeds--to determine customer demand and make sales forecasts. Governments can use it to measure public sentiment. Media organizations can use it to determine user patterns and preferences. TechRepublic's Dan Patterson even used it to learn how social data tells a different story than pundits and mainstream media in evaluating the winners and losers of the first US presidential debate of 2016.

The bottom line is that this data is Twitter's most valuable asset. As a business, it's wasting resources trying to become a social advertising force that can compete with Facebook, a closed platform that knows far more about its users. Twitter should be trying to become a big data company that can give business, governments, and organizations of all sizes the kind of tools that can make them a lot smarter about their users, potential customers, and markets.

If it turned Twitter into an open platform and an internet standard, the company would have to compete with other companies using the data in smart ways and building great tools--or acquire the best ones. But all of that would be the sign of a healthy ecosystem and would be driven by user behavior and preferences, which isn't happening at Twitter today. The company would become to Twitter something similar to what Red Hat and Ubuntu are to Linux--consultants and tool builders.

If all of this sounds unlikely--and, make no mistake, it is--let's not forget that reinstalled CEO Jack Dorsey is at the point with Twitter where he can think about its long term legacy.

If the company is considering a suicidal move like increasing the character limit to 10,000 words, then it's obviously willing to entertain bold moves. Nothing would be bolder than making Twitter what it's always been destined to become: the internet standard for short-form, real-time publishing.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on the Monday Morning Opener:

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