Federating Twitter.

Ryan Sarver posted a note on Google Groups yesterday pleasantly titled “consistency and ecosystem opportunities” in which he proceeded to announce Twitter’s declaration of war on the thousands of application developers that have been built on Twitter’s platform. Naturally it is completely within Twitter’s rights to shun the developers that built their lives and companies around its platform, who, incidentally, are largely responsible for Twitter’s success and growth in both the desktop and, especially, mobile arenas. The advisability of such a move, however, is questionable. It’s a dilemma inevitably confronting any company wishing to both maintain a platform and compete on it (cf. Apple). In Twitter’s case this must be an excruciating question as, despite explosive growth, little means of generating revenue has been found. Shareholders may justifiably be asking whether forcing “consistency” across the user experience might not provide Twitter a bit of leeway for inserting notifications advertising into the experience. The soon-to-be requisite consistency may (slightly) benefit the novice but howls of protest ringing across the Internet suggest geeks are displeased that they will no longer be allowed to vote with their feet, so to speak.

While it’s not too late to backtrack (Beacon, anyone?) and the deployment mechanism (Google Groups) suggests a desire to test the waters before making anything officially official, Twitter has found itself in a position few would envy: plenty of expenses, pitiful revenue, insane expectations. We all wish to see Twitter make what seems like the only ethical choice; compete honestly in the market it created and, until now, encouraged. In practice, that means allowing independent developers to fulfill the needs of power users while investing sufficient effort to provide an approachable experience on all devices for beginners and intermediates. It’s probably a losing strategy for a number of reasons, but it’s significantly less reprehensible than the alternative.

Long run, it’s hard to imagine bite-sized messaging not becoming a federated platform. Email, instant messaging, VoIP all have numerous companies competing on equal footing to provide the best possible experience. It’s a quintessentially free market and, by most people’s standards, fair system. It’s also hopelessly romantic to expect Twitter to willingly abdicate the throne. Tyrants hesitant to acknowledge popular disapproval have historically met with the stiff resistance, and in an age of unbridled communication (ironically enabled by Twitter itself), there seems little doubt that the tide of affairs bodes ill for Twitter’s survival should they continue to anger their most passionate allies.

While a federated platform is far from inevitable, and Twitter’s current popularity and previous failed attempts suggest reasons for pessimism on that front, many who have long sounded the alarm have begun active development of new platforms unowned by any corporation. Dave Winer, for example, has been working on one and mentions it briefly in his thoughts on this new development roadmap. Another already established contender is Identi.ca.

Nobody should be under the illusion that Twitter’s hundreds of millions of accounts will instantaneously be re-born as open source, federated micro-blogging accounts, but if Twitter consciously chooses to continue the abusive relationship it has begun with developers, it is unfathomable that the early adopters will not revolt, undermining the essential network of trust social services are built upon. It’s a risk Twitter appears willing to take. If so, there is nothing left to say but so long and, you know, thanks for all the fish.

Speaking of organizations desperate to anger their core audience, if you’re in Austin for SXSW, you might want to stop in to Federating the Social Web at 9:30 today and The Why and How of Decentralized Web Identity at 11.

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