Twitter's changing mindset -- we've only got ourselves to blame

We know that Twitter is changing its policies to close off third-party clients, but do they have a moral right to do so?
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
A sketch showing how Jack Dorsey (Twitter's inventor) thought its most fundamental operation would work.

Last week we learned that Atta Elayyan and his colleagues at Lazyworm Apps have had their oxygen supply cut off by Twitter Inc. Atta and his team produce Tweetro, one of the Twitter clients available on Windows 8 and Windows RT. Tweetro has his its 100,000 API token limit (meaning it has 100,000 registered users, not all will be active) and no new users can get onboard. As an software engineer, personally I feel deeply sad about this. My heart goes out to Atta and his team who undoubtedly put huge effort into this product only to have those efforts nullified by a partner's policy change.

But it wasn't without warning, Atta knew -- in fact, we all knew -- that Twitter Inc was going to start slowly strangling off clients that replicated the "core Twitter experience".

(You may have noticed at this point that I'm intentionally referencing "Twitter Inc" as the commercial entity looking to monetize the "Twitter" product.)

Commercially its obvious what Twitter Inc is doing. They're not a charity. The third party clients militate against Twitter Inc's commercial objectives. (All of these clients are now exposed -- it's silly to think that the current stick that's been thrown to that tribe of developers isn't just a sop. Enjoy your Tweetbot, or whatever, whilst it lasts.)

Twitter Inc certainly has the right to do this. But I wonder whether this right is morally defensible. Twitter's effect on society as a whole is too big and too important for it to be owned and operated as a commercial enterprise. Within our global interconnected society, Twitter is easily as important a technology for us the world wide web and email.

It's our own fault, really

I look at the internet, email, the world wide web, and now Twitter as points on an arc describing our maturation as a society into one that can take advantage of what we call "social networks" but which can more accurately be thought of more as a way of doing something that humans do really well naturally (being social) and applying technology to make that more efficient. We know that the web and email have changed society. The web contains the a practical totality of human knowledge. Email presents a straightforward way to link people together. Both technologies feed into and link off each other to bring people together -- collaboratively and destructively -- in a way that transcends the limits of our physical reality. As a global society we now create relationships both in physical space and in logical space. As our technology gets better the distinction between the two "planes" becomes moot as we develop the technology.

People tend to think of web and email as being somehow "worthy" enterprises, that we had a right as a society to own these ourselves rather than them being under commercial control. But it's a close run thing. Tim Berners-Lee happened to invent the web for CERN but what if he'd had been working for IBM, Sun, or relevantly here some tiny little startup company in San Francisco when he'd had the idea. Can you imagine the web as a closed platform? One where you had to get each change to a page approved by committee? One where you wouldn't be able to view any page without seeing a "sponsor's message"? Even the most ardent capitalist would find the idea of that offensive enough to describe it as straight-forwardly dystopian.

The point is that Twitter is one of these technologies. It's not a product, or a cute game, or a way of wasting time. Twitter augments web and email -- the first being a store of knowledge, the second being a way of building relationships; what Twitter does in its most important sense is to act as a reactor to ideas. It acts as society's nervous system picking up signals, amplifying them if necessarily, squashing them if not. It operates on the same speed and scale as the web and email. Twitter moves us forward as a global society. It makes us better at being human.

If all that is true -- it's my position, but I'm open to the idea that it might be rubbish, Twitter might just be a "cute toy" -- then Twitter is too important to be managed in a way that's blinkered to the society that it represents. It's right that the web doesn't have shareholders (I'm not saying it doesn't have its politics), and it's equally wrong that Twitter should. Twitter should have belonged to society by incepting it as a bunch of standards and protocols. Instead it was incepted as a product, and there's not really anything that we can do about it.

Our global society would be wounded if someone reached out and flicked off Twitter's power switch. Twitter is doing something for us as a society and as a species that the founders never imagined. The same is true of the web. You think that Tim Berners-Lee when he started out had any idea what his technology would be used for?

What now?

So to be clear about this, I don't blame Twitter Inc at all for this mess. I blame us, as a society. It's not like we didn't know what we were doing. Email we managed to make an open technology. As mentioned, the web is nicely open too. What we should have done individually, collectively, is stood fast and refused to use Twitter because it wasn't open. But that's hindsight. At the time it just looked like fun. It's only now we're in it that we know it's serious business.

What do we do about it now? If you just look at the "right" thing to do, it should be turned into a protocol, opened up, open sourced, and gifted to mankind. Just forget about the billions and billions of dollars on the table.

But would I leave billions of dollars on the table if I could pocket it myself? Not a chance. I've always fancied a yacht.

Take app.net. Here's an initiative to build a Twitter clone based on more agreeable terms. I even joined, and if you go and visit my timeline you'll see it's been three months since I posted anything. I don't post over there because it doesn't offer the same return on investment. More to the point, it's not open.

But it doesn't matter. The problem we have here is that, particularly when it comes to technology, you can't force this stuff. app.net is just a "better mousetrap", and that rarely works. (Interestingly, Microsoft do manage to make this work, but then their whole business is a machine designed to make better mousetraps.) All technology -- whether's it's high tech or "the wheel" -- is just one person having a moment of inspiration. Technology keeps moving forward because we all drive it forward, collectively. The idea of "building a better mousetrap" just gets you a better mousetrap, i.e. its moves along an existing continuum. Really amazing ideas, what I could once upon a time have called "disruptive", but that word has been so abused now it's lost to me, find their own continuum.

Twitter found its own continuum. It found a new way for society to share information and relate to each other, and it now does it fantastically well. Anyone looking to "build a better mousetrap" on the Twitter continuum -- good luck to them. They'll just end up as a Pepsi to Twitter's Coke, used by some, but hardly the real thing.

Because at some point, someone will find a new continuum and create a fantastic new thing on that. Our only hope is that next time whatever that is we learn that if it's a closed technology we reject it for all our sakes.

As Tim Berners-Lee reminded us in the opening ceremony of London 2012, "This is for everyone" is the phrase we should be looking for.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Jack Dorsey/Flickr (This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

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